Watching the Water

By Jim McCloskey

I’ve witnessed and participated in discussions of water safety on a professional level for more than 30 years now, and I can remember a time when watershapers in just about every sector were unhappy about raising the subject in any way.

I could understand the negative attitudes:  No matter whether it had to do with pools, spas, ponds or any other form of open, accessible water, nobody was particularly happy about the thought of fencing things in, installing alarms or, most resolutely, feeling the need to frighten clients as part of the process of persuading them to add watershapes to their lives.

I remember the reaction to the Gus and Goldie program when it arrived in the late 1980s courtesy of what was then the National Spa & Pool Institute – and I have to say the fishes’ handlers didn’t help much.  One of the campaign’s first messages was “Never swim alone.” A waggish acquaintance of mine always put a pregnant pause after the second word and whispered the third so the strongest part of the message became “Never swim.”

His modest suggestion was to fry the fish, and it was only made worse when, during a memorable late-’80s trade show, organizers brought Gus and Goldie into a convention center in an ambulance.  (You can’t make this stuff up.)  There was a profound scrambling of messages with the spokesfish, and I’m more than happy to say that the water-safety issue has found better voice in recent years, thanks in good measure to the sensible folks at Water Safety USA.

I hear about what they’re doing mostly through the National Swimming Pool Foundation, which participates in the organization as one of 14 national governmental and non-governmental member-organizations.  This year’s safety message is a simple one:  “Designate a water watcher – supervision could save a life.”

It always helps when a safety advisory is an appeal to common sense and, even better, when it asks for little more than putting an edge on common practice.  Whenever the head count in our pool exceeded our three swimming children, for instance, I always asked someone else to help me keep an eye on the water, just to be on the safe side.

There’s an obvious problem with my old approach, of course:  It would have been easy for one or both of us to get distracted and assume that the other was on the case.  That’s the beauty of the designated-watcher proposal.  It takes that variable out of the mix and, for the period of the designation, keeps a pair of responsible eyes focused on the task at hand.

The great thing here is that, because of the widespread awareness of the “designated driver” concept, the new message doesn’t require any explanation.  Indeed, almost everyone who comes across the term “designated watcher” will know exactly what it entails, right down to the potentially life-or-death nature of the role.  I don’t know if this association was intentional on the part of Water Safety USA, but it certainly is powerful.

Water Safety USA calls for selecting a designated watcher even if all of the children (and adolescents!) in the water know how to swim.  It also lists requirements for those who would assume the role:  “An appropriate water watcher is someone who is 16 years old or older (adults preferred); is alert and not under the influence of alcohol or drugs; has the skills, knowledge, and ability to recognize and rescue someone in distress or can immediately alert a capable adult nearby; knows CPR or can alert someone nearby who knows CPR; has a working phone to dial 911; and has a floating and/or reaching object that can be used in a rescue.”

The alliance also reminds us all that a water watcher is not a substitute for a lifeguard.  In public waters, it notes, adults should corral children in lifeguard-protected areas but should still designate a water watcher, as drowning can occur even with lifeguards around.

All of this makes sense to me – sobering, but not frightening.  In fact, it encourages involvement with water in all sorts of positive ways.

In days long gone, I had my quibbles with the way the industry approached water-safety concepts.  Happily, that’s no longer the case:  I know the commonsense approach defined by this new campaign can work.

To learn more about how to keep children safe in, on, or around water and for more information about water watchers, visit


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