Risk communication - an essential element of preventative beach lifeguarding

Ocean lifeguards are highly proficient at rescuing people from dangerous conditions and providing high quality on-scene care, but preventing people from needing rescue is a skill that requires practice and experience. Rescuing people requires physical competences, preventing people from needing rescue requires strong communication skills.

In 2016, an international group of researchers and lifeguard managers put their heads together and came up with The Drowning Timeline. It is a helpful schema for understanding various elements of drowning process, especially how/where it can be interrupted (see more here - the table on Page 9 has helpful definitions for this figure). Everyone knows that lifeguards provide immediate on-scene care in the “Mitigate” phase and rescue people in the “React” phase, but we’re interested in exploring what beach lifeguard’s do before someone is in distress and requires rescue.

In this short article, we discuss the importance of risk communication in the “Prevent” phase and offer a few tips on how beach lifeguards can maximise their prevention efforts on the beach. In future articles, we will begin to explore what beach lifeguards can do in the “Prepare” phase, specifically how lifeguards can use digital tools to influence behaviour, and how lifeguards can measure this sort of pre-beach communication the same way we count rescues and first aids.

Communicating “risk”, and what is “risky”, to the public can be difficult, especially at the beach where conditions and people vary and are unpredictable. Yet, it is what beach lifeguards spend most of their time doing. Lifeguard stats from every agency on the planet and several research studies (like this one from the UK, or this one from Newport Beach, CA) show that most lifeguard activity consists of preventative actions.

For lifeguards, not only is a solid understanding of beach hazards and risk essential, but the ability to communicate about these hazards and risk to beachgoers is a critical skill and an important part of the job.

So, what is risk anyway?

Risk is the probability that a hazard will give rise to harm.

While a rip current would be a hazard, risk is the likelihood or probability that someone gets caught in that rip and ends up in trouble. The best thing an ocean lifeguard can do to reduce the risk of rip currents is to prevent beachgoers from getting caught in the first place - not an easy task. A sign identifying the hazard might help, but we know people mostly ignore beach safety signs. We also know that beachgoers have a poor understanding of rip currents and other beach hazards. Both factors make communication from lifeguards essential.

Making things even more difficult, people struggle to understand risk. They often overestimate the risk of activities that pose little danger and underestimate the risk of activities that are more likely to cause harm. Researchers and risk managers sometimes assign risks a numerical probability of taking place, but people find these complicated to understand too!

Plus, in the real-world, hazards don’t come with a numerical risk attached. Nobody looks at a rip current or a cliff edge and sees a holographic image displaying the percentage chance of being injured or dying if getting too close! This project from Australia tried to do something similar with augmented reality, but it never took off.

When it comes to acceptable risk, beaches are different - they are places of leisure and recreation and people aren’t generally thinking about hazards and risk, they just want to have a good time! Combining this lack of knowledge and often hazardous beach and surf conditions is a potentially dangerous cocktail – so what can lifeguards do?

They can communicate directly with beachgoers about the risks and the hazards. Given their other duties, this can be a challenge, but it remains an essential part of the job and something beach lifeguards should be experts at. There are several ways to communicate with the public, from speaking to someone face to face on the sand to using digital tools to reach thousands of people before they ever arrive (stay tuned for more on this in a future article).

On the beach, in the “Prevent” phase of the Drowning Timeline, most lifeguards have access to a PA system, it doesn’t take much effort to make the occasional announcement reminding people of risk and hazards. Lifeguards also have loads of opportunities to talk directly to people – someone (or their friends/family) they just rescued, gave a band-aid to, or pointed towards the bathroom. When you have an opportunity, try and make the effort to communicate about the day’s hazards, whether rips and rocks, or sun and stingrays. That quick message from you, the lifeguard, might help save a life or prevent a nasty sun burn.

Lifeguards are in a position of authority when it comes to risk and hazards at the beach, effectively communicating that risk requires some skill. Below, we’ve provided some suggestions on how lifeguards can improve their risk communication skills based on examples from other sectors where risk communication is critically important, such as counterterrorism and disaster response. Disasters are increasing in frequency around the world, and we are learning the importance of early and effective communication – alerting the public to the hazards and potential risks saves lives. Many of the same principles of disaster risk communication are applicable to a lifeguard’s daily work on the beach.

But what about that “Prepare” phase? Some of the “Seven Cardinal Risk Communication Rules” examples below provide some ideas, but in our next article we dive a bit deeper into what beach lifeguards can do to communicate risk to people before they show up at the beach.

The HEAR Principles

The key foundation for communicating risk to others is to develop rapport. Building rapport quickly requires the lifeguard to speak plainly, simply, and openly. For best results follow the HEAR principles to building rapport (box 1.)

How lifeguards can leverage the “Seven Cardinal Risk Communication Rules”

These rules were developed by the EPA in the 1980s, but still serve as a helpful starting place for daily, run-of-the-mill risk communication by lifeguards.

Accept and involve the public In major disasters, response departments involve the public by presenting regularly on T.V and answering questions from the media, as well as being present on social media to provide updates and even answer questions from the public. The goal is to inform the public, not diffuse concerns or replace action.

For lifeguards, this might look like starting or maintaining an active presence on social media - communicate conditions and safety advice consistently and frequently; get lifeguards from the department trained in media relations and make them available to the local paper, TV and radio stations.

Plan carefully and evaluate efforts Wildfire planners generally have strategies in place on how to evacuate people from their homes, but often, fires have a mind of their own and cut off escape routes. Be prepared as best you can, and ready to communicate with other agencies when a situation requires it. In 2020, the Australian Navy helped the Rural Fire Service evacuate people from beaches.

For lifeguards - take heed of these communication tactics! When a large swell event is forecast for the weekend, get communicating early. For several days before, post on social media and offer the lifeguard department’s expertise to local media outlets. Internally, begin to communicate with staff about what sort of messages lifeguards should be telling the public. Collaborate with other agencies to get the message out early - Is there a parking lot with an attendant that can warn incoming beachgoers about hazards?

Listen to the public’s concerns There should be no assumptions made about the public’s knowledge or concerns. Trust and credibility are key, don’t assume people know what a rip current is, or that they saw the sign on the way in.

For lifeguards, letting people know you understand them and are on “their side” is key. Remind the public you understand they want to have a great day at the beach. That is what you want too – which is why you’re sharing this information.

Be honest and open Hurricane and wildfire communications often involved public officials giving open and frank assessments about the risks to people’s property and lives if they don’t evacuate. Honesty is necessary to develop trust and credibility–which is hard to build and easy to lose.

For lifeguards, a consistent prevention presence built around honest assessments of the conditions and risks builds credibility.

Coordinate and collaborate with other credible sources It’s necessary to have open lines of communication with other trusted sources, and important to be singing the same song. This builds public confidence in your department’s ability to keep people safe. During wildfires, inter-governmental agencies collaborate effectively to evacuate people.

For lifeguards, this might look like collaborating more closely with neighbouring lifeguard agencies, or with other local government departments such as police or fire.

Meet the needs of the media The media are a prime transmitter of information, but they are also more interested in danger than safety, politics than in risk, and simplicity more than complexity. Therefore, it is necessary to be clear and transparent when communicating via the media.

For lifeguards, never assume the media have an expert understanding of what your department does. They might report on a beach, but still have no clue about how to spot a rip or the difference between a tide and a current. Take the time to educate!

Speak clearly with compassion The most important rule when communicating risk to the public is to be clear, using simple language and communicating on a factual level.

For lifeguards, know your audience and pick your words carefully - avoid using abstract or complicated analogies or language. Is it the right time and place to discuss tides and lunar cycle, swell period, lulls, or rip current circulation patterns? Keep it simple!

Lastly, don’t overdo it!

Although communicating risk is crucial and necessary to do in a timely manner, research indicates that the public can succumb to ‘warning fatigue’ if they are repeatedly told about a risk, particularly if they do not then experience that risk. Make sure to communicate when it is important and necessary, for example when there is serious hazard and imminent risk, but be mindful of cry-wolf effect.

This article was a collaborative effort between the UNSW Beach Safety Research Group and Watchtower.

Recommended citation:

Cornell S, Koon W, Brander RW, Taormina W, & Heath T. Risk communication: an essential element of preventative beach lifeguarding. Sydney: UNSW Beach Safety Research Group; Huntington Beach: Watchtower Inc. Published XX July 2022.

Samuel Cornell
Samuel Cornell
Researcher ⋄ UNSW Sydney PhD candidate

A public health researcher with a focus on communication.