2016-06-01 / Features

Pooling Resources

Aquatics Expert Tom Griffiths Has Made the World’s Pools Safer
Robyn Passante | Photos by Matt Fern

Tom Griffiths has spent his life’s work methodically trying to put himself out of business.
Griffiths, who founded the Aquatic Safety Research Group and spent 25 years as director of aquatics and safety officer for athletics at Penn State, has made a career out of figuring out ways to keep people safer in the water.

“Tom’s one of the most well-known water safety experts in the country,” says Shawn DeRosa, who took over as director of aquatics at Penn State after Griffiths retired in 2009. “He’s had an enormous impact on all of the lifeguard training programs in the country, just with the research and things he’s done here. He really challenged the industry as a whole to rethink how we train lifeguards, to teach them differently what to really look for instead of doing for decades what we have done.”

Though he first became a lifeguard at age 13, the spark to want to find better ways to keep people safe while swimming was ignited when Griffiths was working toward his doctorate at the University of Maryland, where he was also teaching lifeguarding, water safety and scuba diving, as well as coaching men and women springboard divers. “I really enjoyed that, but it dawned on me that I was working with smaller populations of very gifted people in the water, yet I kept hearing about these tragic drownings of children around the country.”

So Griffiths began studying the pool setting in a different way, searching for flaws and conducting the research needed to find, and prove, there was a better way.

“Through the ’60s into the ’80s, all a lifeguard needed was a bathing suit and a certification card and they were good to go. They would sit in these lifeguard stands and supervisors would just let them do their job. There was no on-site supervision, no in-service training, no lifeguard audits,” says Griffiths, who travels the world teaching workshops for pool operators, speaking at conferences and providing expert testimony in lawsuits.

Lifeguard training has evolved significantly thanks, in a big way, to Griffiths. But that’s not all that’s changed. If you go to any of the Centre Region’s pools this summer — or elsewhere in the country, for that matter — chances are you’ll reap the benefits of Griffiths’ hard work. Here are his biggest ideas, which have been implemented across the country.

Five-Minute Scanning Strategy
One of the first things Griffiths studied was the way lifeguards worked their shifts. “Lifeguards would sit in tall, elevated chairs and try to see everyone. They weren’t allowed to speak to anyone, weren’t allowed to move, just sit in that chair,” he says. “Well, if you lower your heart rate and respiration rate, you’re going to become drowsy, less attentive, less vigilant. So after five years of work we came up with the Five-Minute Scanning Strategy.”

The strategy involves ways to keep a guard more attentive, which keeps everyone on their watch safer.
“We want them to make a move, any move, every five minutes. And count people in the pool every five minutes. So if they’re seated in an elevated lifeguard stand, we ask them to stand for five minutes, then sit down for five. Use a circular eye pattern to scan the pool for five minutes, then switch to a linear or square pattern for five minutes,” he says. “Being active and interacting really helped concentration.”

Griffiths implemented the change at Penn State, and his lifeguards liked it so much he took it on the road. “Now all the Ellis & Associates lifeguards use it — they have lifeguards in 85 percent of water parks worldwide. The lifeguards like it because it keeps them moving, keeps them more alert, and the day goes by quicker. But it also prevents drowning, because lifeguards are more likely to see a swimmer in distress if they’re increasing their heart rate slightly and increasing their respiration slightly and if there’s a little bit of movement going on rather than just sitting on their butts.”

Lifeguard Blindness
Griffiths’ extensive research on lifeguards also resulted in a video called “The Complex Quadriplex of Lifeguard Blindness.” It’s an educational tool meant to introduce lifeguards and pool supervisors to the external and internal distractions that can keep guards from seeing what’s right in front of them.

“We approach lifeguarding like coaches approach athletic performance,” Griffiths says. “You’re focused on the skill at hand and on how do you avoid distractions.”

Those distractions can be external — cell phones, friends, beach balls lobbing overhead — and internal — thinking about something in the past or the future. There are also physical reasons this type of “blindness” occurs, like the way sunlight reflects on a pool’s surface, or how the ripple effect of water can keep one from seeing the bottom clearly.

Todd Roth, director of aquatics for Centre Region Parks and Recreation, says he uses Griffiths’ Quadriplex of Lifeguard Blindness as part of his training program.

“I actually keep a Quadriplex of Lifeguard Blindness poster posted in our guard rooms, as something to remind them, ‘Hey, stay out of these trouble zones,’” says Roth, whose first lifeguarding job was under Griffiths at the McCoy Natatorium back in the mid-1990s. “[Tom’s] one of the top 10 people in the country in terms of influencing why our lifeguards do what they do and how they do it.”

‘Disappearing Dummies’
Some of Griffiths’ discoveries have been simple things nobody seemed to realize — or took the time to prove — before. His “Disappearing Dummies” video illustrates a pretty big one.  

“‘Disappearing Dummies’ shows how lifeguards are not able to see through to the bottom of the pool, which is something everyone assumed you could do,” DeRosa says.

Griffiths submerged dummies of varying sizes and took photos of them from different angles, proving how difficult it can be to see to the bottom of the pool when the water is moving and people are splashing.

“That really started a change in all lifeguarding programs to teach lifeguards to scan from the bottom of the pool to the surface. Before, we taught lifeguards to scan the pool from left to right and if you saw someone in distress, go save them. But we never really described what someone on the bottom of the pool looked like. They don’t look like a person. A small child might look like a smudge on the bottom, or a towel, or a discoloration,” DeRosa says. “We weren’t really tuned in to the fact that if the body on the bottom of the pool is in the corner, or on a racing line, that body will blend in to the bottom. That changed how the Red Cross, YMCA, everyone began training their lifeguards.”

Tom Griffiths and his successor at Penn State, Shawn DeRosa, inside McCoy Natatorium.Tom Griffiths and his successor at Penn State, Shawn DeRosa, inside McCoy Natatorium.Note & Float
All the lifeguard training in the world sometimes can’t stop a child from drowning. So Griffiths has undertaken an effort to make non-swimmers safer on their own, too, through his Note & Float program. Under Note & Float, if a person can’t swim the length of the pool, they are given a life jacket and wristband or temporary tattoo to wear, identifying them as a non-swimmer.

“We have seatbelts and airbags and car seats in automobiles, but we don’t have anything for kids in swimming pools except for lifeguards. So why don’t we put life jackets on non-swimmers in all pools in America?” Griffiths says. “We have found not a single child drowning in America who has worn a properly fitting life jacket. Not one.”

The Natatorium’s pools use the Note & Float program, along with a growing number of pools across the country, as well as all pools on Royal Caribbean Cruise Line ships.

“The feedback they’re getting from parents who go on their cruise ships is just fantastic,” Griffiths says.
Knowing that cost can be prohibitive, Griffiths and his daughter and business partner, Rachel Griffiths, started a nonprofit organization through which they donate life jackets to community pools that demonstrate the need and the willingness to implement the program — and track its effects.

“Kids want to learn to swim more when they’re given a life jacket and can play around in the water,” says Rachel Griffiths, who heads up the duo’s nonprofit, Note and Float Life Jacket Fund. The fund has donated about 1,800 life jackets to qualified pools across the country so far, she says.

But Note & Float isn’t just for little kids. The Natatorium has adult-sized life jackets for non-swimmers, which DeRosa says get used from time to time. He recalls talking with a group of international college students who were enjoying their first time in the deep end of a pool a few summers ago.

“They said, ‘We’ve never been in deep water before,’” DeRosa recalls. “The simple fact that we had adult-sized life jackets allowed these students, who didn’t have the opportunity growing up to take swim lessons and really play in deep water, to have that experience here at Penn State.”

Pool Design and Signage
Pools are sometimes part of the safety problem, and Griffiths has done his part, through audits, consultations and conference speaking engagements, to encourage change — with diving boards in particular.

“What other activity in this country would you allow a 7-year-old child to climb up 10 feet in the air on a ladder in bare feet in a wet environment over concrete? We installed these boards in the 1970s, and we keep letting them do it because we think it must be safe,” he says. At the Natatorium, they added railings and stainless steel mesh between the railings to increase safety.

Griffiths also has heralded the use of simple, colorful highway-type signs that are slowly replacing the old black and white signs that catalogued a long list of pool rules. He suggests four rules, each on its own eye-catching sign:

  • Parents watch your children
  • No diving in shallow water
  • Non-swimmers need life jackets
  • No breath holding

Shallow Water Blackout
“No breath holding” might seem like a silly rule to enforce in a swimming pool, but the dangers of hypoxic blackout — or shallow water blackout — are real.

“For quite some time he’s been talking about the dangers of competitive, repetitive underwater breath holding. There continue to be deaths from people who hold their breath too long and too many times; they eventually pass out underwater and drown. But he’s really worked to bring this to the forefront of the aquatics industry,” DeRosa says. “In the past five years there’s been increased attention in media coverage due in large part to him having spoken about this for more than a decade. He’s doing really groundbreaking work.”

That work includes a partnership with, which was started by Dr. Rhonda Milner, the mother of a spear fisherman who died in 2011 of the condition. Juliene Hefter, executive director of the Association of Aquatic Professionals, isn’t surprised Griffiths lent his expertise and research capabilities to further Milner’s cause.

“He’s very willing to share his information and knowledge,” Hefter says of her longtime colleague. “That’s a big thing in the aquatics profession. It’s all about improving safety.” •SCM

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