Challenges and feasibility of applying reasoning and decision-making for a lifeguard undertaking a rescue research

David Szpilman, Billy Doyle, Jenny Smith, Rachel Griffiths, Mike Tipton

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In areas where lifeguard services operate, less than 6% of all rescued persons need medical attention and require CPR. In contrast, among areas where no lifeguard services are provided almost 30% require CPR. This difference indicates the importance of the lifeguard is. Lifeguard work requires effective problem identification, diagnostic strategies and management decisions to be made in high-risk environments where time is of the essence. The purpose of this investigation was to assess all variables involved in lifeguard work related to a water rescue, and how the information obtained could inform lifeguard training and therefore performance.

Methods - By using the drowning timeline, the authors explored all variables involved in a single rescue event by inviting 12 lifeguards to complete a survey of their professional role using a three-round Delphi survey technique. The total potential number of decisions for each phase and sub-phases, the number of variables, the probability of a single event repeating, the duration of each sub-phase and amount of variables demanded per minute were measured. Each sub-phase was presented as predominantly rational (If less than 1 variable per/min) or intuitive (If more than 1/min).

Results - The variables identified in sub-phases were: “preparation to work” (8 variables and 0.0001 variables/min) and “prevent” (22 variables; 0.03 variables/min); these sub-phases were predominately considered to lead to rational decisions. The variables identified during “rescue” (27 variables and 2.7 variables/min) and “first-aid” (7 variables and 1.7 variables) were predominantly considered intuitive processes.

Conclusion - This study demonstrates the complexity of a lifeguards’ decision-making process during the quick, physically and mentally stressful moments of rescuing someone. The authors propose better decisionmaking processes can be achieved by reducing the time interval between identification of a problem and making a decision. Understanding this complex mechanism may allow more efficient training resulting in faster and more reliable decision-makers with the overall benefit of more lives saved.
Original languageEnglish
Article number379
JournalInternational Journal of Emergency Mental Health
Issue number4
Early online date1 Jan 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2018


  • drowning
  • prevention
  • preparation
  • rescue
  • mitigation
  • decisionmaking
  • reasoning


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