Aquatic DROP Drills: A Guide for Unannounced Drills

Download our Remediation Plan Worksheet & Aquatic DROP Log

In 2001, Jeff Ellis and Associates and Poseidon Technologies conducted the first on-site study on lifeguard vigilance. The study was designed to measure and record a lifeguard’s ability to identify and rescue possible victims (fully submerged manikins) from the bottom of a pool. During these on-site visits, over 500 tests were performed in a variety of pools. The results were troubling:

The average detection time was one minute and 14 seconds. This number was in sharp contrast to the general rule that a guard is expected to reach the victim within 20 seconds of spotting them.

This study had profound implications for the way we approach lifeguard training today, including an increased emphasis on effective “triage” scanning and lifeguard empowerment, as well as the prevention of fatigue or inattentiveness.

Perhaps one of the most important developments that resulted from this study was an increased adoption of DROP drills.

How to Administer DROP Drills

DROP drills—unannounced drills using manikins, silhouettes or other objects—have proven to be an effective way to train and prepare lifeguards to take action. These drills should be administered every 40 hours a guard is on duty. Here’s how to set up your own DROP drill program:

  • Step 1: Get to know your pool, including likely blindspots or problem areas that need additional attention. (See “Getting to Know Your Pool” below.)
  • Step 2: Purchase training devices from a supplier, or create your own with materials you have available, (e.g. silhouettes, manikins. weighted towels etc.)
  • Step 3: Place the training device at the bottom of the pool, within the lifeguard’s zone and without giving the guard any prior knowledge.
  • Step 4: As soon as the device is fully submerged, track the time it takes for the guard to respond to the device, and retrieve it from the water.
  • Step 5: Keep ongoing DROP Drill documentation for all guards. This allows you to track staff progress and helps to identify any areas in need of improvement.

Note: Drop Drills are only simulated rescues. However, guards are expected to always enter the water to retrieve the device. This will help to ensure that guards are not simply pointing to dropped devices–as a perceived device could ultimately be a victim.

Lifeguard Remediation
Depending on the size/characteristics of your pool, we encourage you to decide how quickly a lifeguard should identify the silhouette on the bottom of the pool. This can be anywhere from 10 seconds-20 seconds. A lifeguard that has not met this standard should undergo some type of remediation to ensure they vigilant the next time they are in the stand. (A sample remediation program and documentation log is provided at the end of this document.)

Assessing Your Systems
It is important to remember, however, that a lifeguard’s performance should not be evaluated in a vacuum. In addition to assessing individual guard performance, management can use DROP drills to determine whether the systems in place—from shift scheduling to scanning protocols to lifeguard positioning—are allowing lifeguards to succeed. If a lifeguard’s position prevented him or her from seeing the silhouette on the bottom of the pool, for example, then you may need to move your lifeguard stands or encourage your guards to move around more. If multiple guards are regularly failing your DROP drills, then you may need to reevaluate your training, scheduling or even your hiring practices.

It is always necessary to evaluate lifeguard performance. And it is always necessary to revisit and revise your protocols and practices. DROP Drill training is an invaluable tool for aquatic staff, members and management alike. With consistent implementation of the DROP Drill process, lifeguards will be better trained, aquatic directors will have a way to hold staff accountable, and members and guests will have the confidence they need that the guards at your facility are vigilant, responsive and ready to act at the first sign of trouble.


Getting to Know Your Pool

Getting to know your pool before administering DROP drills is invaluable. Not only is this an important responsibility that will enable guards to better identify victims, but it will also help management better maintain optimal swimming conditions for its members. Here are a few ways management and guards can become familiar with the pool:

  • Identify common areas where rescues are frequently performed and mitigate possible causes, (e.g. guard positioning, and staffing concerns).
  • Know where the pool starts to slope and goes from shallow to deep as well as the angle of the incline. Consider this to be a high-risk area as small children can often times lose their footing and slip under.
  • Be familiar with drains and other noticeable marks on the bottom of the pool. It’s important for lifeguards to become familiar with what the bottom of the pool normally looks like.
  • Know what your aquatic center’s emergency action plans entail. This means knowing the location of the emergency switch, who will retrieve emergency equipment, who will call 911 and who will help to pull the victim out of the pool.
  • Determine whether water clarity is an issue. Ask yourself: would a guard be able to see a dime on the bottom of the pool? If the answer is no, it may be time to clean it. In natural bodies of water where clarity is often an issue, you may need to deploy extra safety precautions like enlisting the help of additional staff or volunteers to increase supervision.
  • Performing occasional, additional silhouette drops unrelated to DROP Drills, and specifically to test visibility issues, allows the facility pinpoint areas that make seeing the bottom of the pool difficult due to glare, reflection, or turbidity.
  • Be certain that guards are positioned to see the bottom of the pool at all times.


Placing Your Device Without Detection

There are many ways to go unnoticed while getting your devices into the pool. You can alternate these methods to minimize predictability, and keep your lifeguards engaged:

  • Roll up your silhouette/device and carry it to the drop location.
  • Transport your device in the back of a swim suit.
  • Ask a member to place the silhouette on the bottom of the pool. (Lap swimmers might especially enjoy the task of being a “good helper” and placing the silhouette.)
  • Place the silhouette before the guard arrives or during rotation.
  • Designate maintenance staff and other employees to help. An employee who is cleaning the deck area or adding chemicals can slip the silhouette into the pool.
  • When the guard looks the other way to complete their scan, drop the silhouette.