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County missing lifeguard certifications during near drowning

Browns Mill Aquatic Center was temporarily closed after a near drowning on July 29. The county discovered that it had not checked the certifications for all of the lifeguards. Photo by Andrew Cauthen

When a boy nearly drowned at a county-owned pool in June, DeKalb County did not have certifications on hand for all of the contracted lifeguards working at the pool. The county’s contract required these to be kept onsite at all times.

The Champion’s investigation revealed that the county did not have certifications on file for seven of the lifeguards working at Browns Mill on the day of the near drowning.

Further, the investigation revealed that the county did not have certifications available for some of its own lifeguards in 2014 and 2015.

Fourteen-year-old Brionne Sloan was playing in the pool with friends June 22 at Browns Mill Aquatic Center when he became unconscious and nearly drowned. His mother, Melissa Sloan said her son “went over five minutes without oxygen to his brain. 

“My son had passed away, and he came back. He was gone. He was not breathing,” she said. 

According to witness accounts, two pool patrons, assisted by a lifeguard hired by USA Management LLC, pulled the boy out of the pool.

Brionne “instantly started vomiting and continued vomiting for approximately one minute, expelling water,” according to a report by USA Management. After being attended to by a team of four lifeguards, the victim stopped vomiting and attempted to get up; he was “alert, talking and breathing normally.”

There was never a need for CPR to be performed because “the victim maintained a pulse and breathing,” the report stated.

John Williams of USA Management, the vendor which provided lifeguard services at the pool, said in a video-recorded statement that the lifeguards were professionals who knew their jobs well.

“The county, the commissioners, the community should be thanking them,” Williams said. “They should be patting them on the back for a job well done.”

Roy Wilson, the county’s parks director, said USA Management’s lifeguards “did not handle the situation well, in my opinion. The guards were not looking at the pool. There was one not at the proper station, and it took a private citizen to pull this child from the water. We are very blessed and fortunate that the child did not drown.” 

 

Some lifeguard certifications were not on file

Approximately a month after the near drowning, the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners voted to terminate the contract with USA Management because “we learned that they did not have certifications for the guards that they hired,” Wilson said.

“They didn’t show proof. I did not have copies of it. I needed to have it in my hand,” Wilson said. “There were not…certifications for every guard that they had in employment. This is not to say that the guards that they hired could not swim, [and]…did not have the lifesaving techniques or CPR.

“This is to say they did not have certifications on paper, which is required as a part of the contract,” Wilson said.

During the investigation, a county aquatics staff member conducted a skills test for the lifeguards and determined the lifeguards could swim and perform CPR, contrary to allegations that surfaced after the incident, Wilson said.

When The Champion filed an Open Records Act request for Browns Mill lifeguard certifications since 2008, the county provided records for only 2015.

“I wouldn’t hold records from 2008,” Wilson said. “It’s just like tax returns. I don’t have my tax returns from 2008, but I will save them for three or four years.”

Wilson said he did not know why there were no USA Management lifeguard certifications on file from 2014.

“All I can say is we had them for the current year,” Wilson said. “We had the certifications made available to us. They were in our aquatics office.”

When The Champion checked to see if the county had certifications for county-hired lifeguards at its pools, there were no certifications available for three lifeguards in 2015 and six in 2014.

When asked about the missing certifications for county-hired lifeguards, Wilson said, “I can’t answer that. I don’t know.”

In a July 27 letter to interim DeKalb CEO Lee May, which led to the termination of USA Management’s contract, Wilson wrote that “immediately after the incident, the county requested lifeguard certifications from USA Management for their lifeguards employed at” Browns Mill.

When asked why the county asked for certifications if they already had been provided before the pool season started, Wilson said, “After going through the certifications, I realized that I did not have them for all of the names that they had submitted to me as employees of their company. I did not have a certification to match each name. That’s when I began to ask for all of the certifications.

“As director of the department, I have aquatics folks. I have athletics folks. I have recreation center folks,” Wilson said. “My aquatics folks are responsible for obtaining and keeping records when it comes to pools. 

“When I became involved it was at that point that I realized that I didn’t have certifications for everybody,” Wilson said. “That’s not something I would be involved in on a daily basis, or even a seasonal basis unless there is an issue. I’m running a department; I’m not running a pool.

“Were the certifications available before June 22? Yes, they were available,” Wilson said. “Did I have them in my drawer? No. Did I have them in a file cabinet? No. But they were made available to me.”

In the letter to May, Wilson stated that upon request USA Management provided a total of 34 certifications for 50 of its Browns Mill lifeguards. 

The Champion’s review of county documents revealed that the company provided 50 certifications for 58 employees.

 

Copies of certifications should be at pools

 

Although the county’s ordinance does not mention lifeguard certifications, Chapter 511-3-5 of the state Department of Public Health’s Rules and Regulations for Public Swimming Pools, Spas, and Recreational Water Parks states that, when provided, lifeguards must hold “current, nationally recognized certifications in lifeguarding, adult/child/infant CPR and first aid.” 

Copies of those certifications must be “maintained at the facility and be available to the local health authority for inspection,” the regulations state.

“State law does not require that you have [the certifications] at the pool because we don’t have a filing system at the pool, but law requires that we have them in the aquatics office,” Wilson said.

“My read of the law is that they need to be in a safe place,” Wilson said. “I don’t consider a cubicle or an open area a safe place. There is no way to safeguard the paperwork because on some of those certifications you have personal information,” Wilson said.

“As long as I can produce it and it’s in a central office, it doesn’t have to be in a pool office,” Wilson said.

According to the county’s contract with USA Management, certifications were required to be “on file at [the] Browns [Mill] pool location.”

A state Department of Public Health spokeswoman told The Champion, “As stated in the rules, the records should be kept at the facility so they are available for review if the environmental health specialist requests [them] during the pool inspection.”

Wilson said he would check with county attorneys to see if certifications are required to be kept at pools.

Alan Gaines, the environmental health department manager for the DeKalb County Board of Health, said environmental health inspectors do not routinely check for lifeguard certifications because they are not required to by the county ordinance. (see related story on page 3A)

 

The county should have checked ‘more thoroughly’

 

Wilson said the near-drowning incident has been a “lesson learned.”

“As a department we make every attempt to get it right,” he said. “We’re wonderfully self-critical and… when things go wrong as they sometimes will we are not cynical enough to think we can’t resolve our challenges.”

Wilson said the county should have checked the certifications “more thoroughly”.

“I assumed [the lifeguards] were all certified because I depend on my people to make sure that they are doing their jobs and that they are doing their jobs thoroughly,” Wilson said. 

“Apparently that was not case, so we are making adjustments to how we go through our contracts to make sure that every area of the contract and every stipulation within the contract is being met,” he said.

Wilson said his new policy is that “before any company or any contractor hires guards for DeKalb County, [he will] personally look at every certification and every name on the list of hires to ensure that that person is indeed prepared and certified to oversee a DeKalb County pool.”

Wilson also has changed the leadership of the aquatics division.

“With the new leadership that I’ve put in place over aquatics, with the new directives that I’ve given that leadership, I think that we will continue to be as successful as we have always been until this hiccup that we had on June 22,” Wilson said, adding that there have been no drownings at county pools during his six-year tenure.

As for other changes in aquatics, Wilson said he has time to “adjust how we do business in aquatics.”

“The season is over,” he said. “At this point I have a year, just about, to make any adjustments I need to make to that operation.” 

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3 Comments

  1. Travis says:

    “My read of the law is that they need to be in a safe place,” Wilson said. “I don’t consider a cubicle or an open area a safe place. There is no way to safeguard the paperwork because on some of those certifications you have personal information,” Wilson said.

    My pools usually keep them in the manager’s office. And they don’t have that much personal information. If you go to http://redcross.org/confirm and enter GOWQ9Y

  2. Travis says:

    ““With the new leadership that I’ve put in place over aquatics, with the new directives that I’ve given that leadership, I think that we will continue to be as successful as we have always been until this hiccup that we had on June 22,” Wilson said, adding that there have been no drownings at county pools during his six-year tenure.”

    Drownings are freak accidents that happen every day. Just because there hasn’t been any reported drownings* in 6 years doesn’t mean everything is perfect. I have guarded for 10 years and most years I never have to do a rescue, but sometimes a kid belly flops off the diving board and is too hurt to swim (one of two rescues this summer). I know from experience not every rescue is reported. When I worked at a USA Pools pool we would have a rescue every day or more that had a guard jumping into the water. The lifeguards I was with don’t understand the need to report and find it a waste of time (or at that pool too understaffed to do reports) and never report anything.

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