HOUSTON -- The Houston Parks and Recreation Department has taken disciplinary action against some of its lifeguards following the results of an 11 News I-Team investigation.
Consider what our cameras captured on one recent Saturday at the Moody Park pool.
Four lifeguards were on duty, but only one was actually monitoring the swimmers in the pool. But soon she was distracted by another guard taking photos of her. The result: The swimmers went unobserved for nearly a minute.
“Nobody is watching the kids!” said mother and grandmother Julie Mendoza.
“Absolutely no one,” Mendoza said.
"They shouldn't be doing that, they should be watching the pool, watching the kids, making sure nobody is drowning," added mother Esmeralda Molina.
But instead, the I-Team frequently found lifeguards watching their cell phones.
At the Beverly Hills Park in Southeast Houston, we saw not one or two, but three guards with their head down, eyes “glued” to the small screen.
That is, until we approached them. They weren't happy to see us.
“Can you get that camera out of my face,” said one unidentified lifeguard.
“Don’t worry about my name,” added another.
I-Team: “You've been constantly on your phones, isn't there some lifeguarding to do here?”
Unidentified lifeguard: “There you go right there.”
He pointed to the only lifeguard on a stand. But minutes earlier that same guard had been staring at another guard’s phone. And just moments before that, even without his cell phone as a distraction, the guard also missed a swimmer behind him doing dangerous flips into the water.
"Obviously lifeguards don't have eyes in the back of their head," said Marty Wadsworth.
Wadsworth is a certified lifeguard instructor and former auditor for a national aquatics risk management company. He currently serves as Aquatics Director, for A-Beautiful pools, a Houston pool management company that services more than 70 facilities.
"If they're not paying attention, people can lose their life," Wadsworth said.
Statistics show it can happen before you know it.
"That water can take away a child's life in under 30 seconds," he said.
But that “photo shoot” at Moody Park the I-Team documented, distracted the guard for precisely 47 seconds.
"On average again, it takes only 30 seconds for a child to go unconscious in the water,” Wadsworth said.
So what was the City of Houston’s reaction to our findings? Jeff Jefferson is a division manager for the Parks and Recreation Department, and oversees all 37 city pools.
"That is a zero tolerance matter,” Jefferson said.
"Without saying what my feelings really were, they must be addressed, they must be addressed immediately," he said.
But the I-Team found other areas where the City is breaking its own safety rules, such as staffing.
Jefferson said his department subscribes to the “1-to-25 rule” or one lifeguard for every 25 patrons at a pool.
But at the jam-packed Lincoln Park pool in Acres Homes, we saw only one guard on duty.
At DeZavala pool in East Houston, there also was only one guard watching swimmers.
The Houston Parks and Recreation Department publishes a lengthy Aquatics Manual, which covers policies, procedures, and emergency action protocol.
But we asked Division Manager Jefferson:
I-Team: “You have 80 pages of material that talks about everything under the sun, but doesn't mention how many guards should be by a pool.”
Jefferson: “Because we cover that in training.”
I-Team: “Why not write it down so everybody knows?”
Jefferson: “We could do that."
But in the meantime, what have taxpayers gotten instead of 1-to-25? At Stude Park in the Heights it was a lot of lifeguards just standing around, once again, not focused on the pool.
And back at Moody Park we found a lot of guards sitting around.
“It's pretty concerning. I wouldn't take my kids to those parks,” said mother Crystal Sabado.
And she has a warning: "There are going to be drownings, or a child is going to get hurt,” Sabado said.
After seeing our footage, the Parks Department's Division Manager demoted one employee and suspended another. Jeff Jefferson also called staff-wide re-training sessions, and will be doing onsite surveys of all the city's 37 pools throughout the swimming season.
Jefferson encouraged anyone who sees City lifeguards not paying attention to call Parks Department Dispatch at832-395-7100.