Who Knows Best: Doctor or Lifeguard?

April 15, 2011 by John Oliver

A drowning tragedy that took place in the Bahamas earlier this week is raising questions about the response of the waterpark's lifeguards. We encourage you to read more about the circumstances leading up to the drowning, but in short, an unresponsive five-year-old girl was pulled from the water by a waterpark guest. Another guest, who happened to be a registered nurse, immediately began providing rescue breathing. Shortly thereafter, an emergency room doctor stepped in and assisted. A group of waterpark lifeguards eventually arrived and allegedly forced the nurse and doctor to the side and proceeded to perform CPR.

WaterparkAs it stands now, there are a lot of questions surrounding the entire ordeal. In this post we're only going to focus on one question:

Should lifeguards and other CPR-trained staff step aside and allow guests who claim to be medical professionals perform lifesaving techniques?

Loss prevention, claims, and legal associates from West Bend got together this morning to discuss this very difficult question. We started the brainstorming session by identifying two different scenarios. In order to assess the liability questions surrounding this story, the five-year-old girl dies in both scenarios. The two scenarios are:

  1. Lifeguards arrive and allow the doctor and nurse to continue providing care.
  2. Lifeguards arrive and prevent the doctor and nurse from continuing to provide care.

Once we had the two scenarios laid out, the question was: Which case would we, as an insurance carrier, rather defend from a liability standpoint? Now before we continue with this discussion, we want to make it very clear that we obviously would prefer to never see a drowning occur; the reality is, however, that these things happen, and addressing aquatics policies and procedures often comes down to matters of liability.

After some debate, everyone was in agreement that we would much rather see a lifeguard or other member of the staff allow a medical professional to take over. The obvious rebuttal to this is, "But how do you know that someone is actually a doctor, nurse, or EMT?" We are confident that most people in most circumstances would not falsely claim to be a professional, and for this reason, we give these people the benefit of the doubt.

Insight from an Aquatics Professional

We recognize, however, that insurance carriers may view these kinds of scenarios with a different lens than a full-time aquatics professional, so we spoke with Bonnie Griswold, a lifelong water safety advocate, trainer, and supervisor. Bonnie is currently an instructor at the University of Wisconsin, and was a member of the American Red Cross National Technical and Educational Advisory Development Team for the revision of the current Lifeguarding materials and for the 2009 release of the Water Safety Instructor (WSI) program.

After sharing the details of the drowning that took place at Atlantis Resort and Casino in the Bahamas, we asked Bonnie what she would expect from her own lifeguard crew. Without hesitation, Mrs. Griswold indicated that in every scenario, she would hope her lifeguards would step aside and allow someone claiming to be a medical professional to take over.

She says, "You always make room for the person with the highest level of training." And with that in mind, she brought up another excellent point: lifeguards have more training in water rescues than a doctor or nurse. So, if a swimmer is in distress and a doctor is present, the lifeguard takes the lead until the victim is safely on land, and then the doctor takes over from there.

We hope this information is helpful to you and your staff. Do you currently have policies in place to address these kinds of scenarios? Do you think the lifeguards at Atlantis did the right thing? Let us know in the comments section below.

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