Are Lifeguards Keeping You Safe?

One Staten Island lifeguard was found sleeping while on duty.

Aug. 4, 2009 — -- Each year thousands of swimmers and beachgoers entrust their safety to lifeguards. But what if the person assigned to keep you and your family safe was becoming distracted by listening to music, or even sleeping in the lifeguard chair?

A photograph taken this weekend captured a lifeguard asleep on duty in his chair in New York's Far Rockaway while he was supposed to be watching beach patrons.

"That is very disturbing," one mother said. "I think they should be fired."

"You have to be alert," she added.

And thanks to higher tides this season, having alert lifeguards is more important than ever. From Florida to Maine, experts said tides are up to 2 feet higher than in other years, causing more dangerous riptides.

Examples of dangerous waters have already been apparent this summer.

Last week beachgoers searched frantically for a South Carolina boy who got caught in a riptide. He drowned. And another person drowned off a beach in Queens, N.Y., Monday.

But drowning risks aren't limited to open water. Five El Paso, Texas, children, have drowned this summer in pools, and this Sunday, a toddler died in a pool at the nation's largest water park, in Sandusky, Ohio.

The state has cited the park five times since it opened in 2005 and this weekend inspectors said the park had fewer lifeguards than expected.

For Debbie and Tom Freed, stories like that serve as painful reminders of the day their 5-year-old son Connor died. He drowned right beneath the lifeguard stand at a Maryland pool.

Lifeguards Save Thousands

The Freeds said a 16-year-old lifeguard with three weeks' experience was the only one on duty at the time of the accident.

"He was out of sight for about five minutes and a five-year-old saw him under a lifeguard chair," Debbie Freed said. "It makes me sick to my stomach."

Each year lifeguards in the United States save more than 70, 000 people, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association. But approximately 1,000 children and teens lose their lives every year in drowning incidents, and one out of every five children who drown do so in pools without a certified lifeguard.

The Freeds said there are many well-trained lifeguards out there, but it's up to parents to do their homework. Asking simple questions about the number of lifeguards on duty and their level of experience can ensure that you or your family are swimming in well-patrolled waters.

"It's a big problem, and it's preventable. It doesn't have to happen," said Debbie Freed.