Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
For this project, we ask you what you want us to investigate and what stories you'd like us to tell.

Why do lifeguards at Austin's city pools blow their whistles like that at break time?

A lifeguard stands next to pool and a lifeguard stand with another lifeguard sitting in it
Michael Minasi
Lifeguards Quinlin Taylor and Katie Mallet change shifts at Big Stacy Pool in 2019.

This story was originally published on Aug. 13, 2019.

If you can bear to be outside during this oppressive heat, you may be heading to get in a swim at your neighborhood pool. And while you're there, maybe you'll hear what Madeline Fening hears when it's time for people to get out of the pool for a five-minute break.

Around 55 minutes past each hour, a lifeguard on the pool deck will give the countdown with their fingers: 3, 2, 1. Then they'll make a circle with their finger, and the lifeguards will all blow that same loud-to-soft-and-then-loud-again whistle.

It's a symphony of whistles.

Fening wanted to know why, so she wrote in to our ATXplained project.

"My question was: Why do the Austin city pool lifeguards blow the whistle for rest break in a very specific way?" she says.  

SUBSCRIBE | Find the ATXplained podcast at Apple Podcast, Overcast, Pocket Casts or your favorite podcast player

I met Fening at Big Stacy Pool in South Austin to ask Gavin Wagers, a supervisor in the Austin Parks and Recreation Department.

He says the name for this symphony is an "oscillating whistle."

"We want to do it nice and loud – that way everyone in the facility is hearing it," Wagers says. "There's not a question as to, 'Oh, did they just say pool break?' It's very clear that everyone needs to get out of the water." (Lap swimmers are allowed to stay in.)

He adds: "You know, it sounds good and it sounds professional to do all our whistles simultaneously."

"It's definitely not the type of rest break whistle I grew up hearing — and it sounds a bit more dramatic."

So basically, lifeguards do it because it gets people's attention (and it sounds cool). There aren't any national lifeguard whistle standards, so while you might hear the oscillating whistle elsewhere in the world, you won't hear it everywhere.

You will hear it at all City of Austin pools – with the exception of Barton Springs, where getting everyone out of the pool would be tough.

On a related note: Why do lifeguards do the rest break at all?

"It really just provides the patrons an opportunity to hop out of the pool – kind of give them a reminder like, 'Oh, I can go get some water right now' or 'I can re-apply my sunscreen,'" Wagers says. "It also is kind of convenient for parents to be like, 'Oh, time to go; pool's closed' and the kids are like, 'All right, gotta go.'"

(My fellow parents can appreciate that.)

Lifeguards stay in their chairs during the break, though. 

"It allows them the opportunity to kind of survey the bottom of the pool and make sure they didn't miss anything and nobody's down there," Wagers says.

But the rest break whistle isn't the only whistle. There are others:

Single tweet:


This one is to get the attention of a pool patron. Usually, it's to enforce the rules – by telling them not to run, get off someone's shoulders or not to hang on the railings.

Double tweet:


This one is for getting the attention of another lifeguard. You'll hear this one before the break whistle to get all the lifeguards ready to do the oscillating whistle.

Long tweet:


This one means a lifeguard is performing a rescue. The lifeguard will blow this whistle as they dive out of their chair until they hit the water. 

Triple tweet:


This one is bad. It means someone has a spinal injury. Wagers calls this "big ringing bells for the lifeguards." You'll likely hear the oscillating whistle from other lifeguards shortly after, telling everyone to get out of the pool, so the lifeguards can focus on rescuing the injured person.

Lifeguard Katie Mallet on duty at Big Stacy Pool
Credit Michael Minasi for KUT
Mallet, a lifeguard of six years, watches over swimmers during a quiet morning at Big Stacy Pool.

So that's the whistle code. Austin lifeguards use the same signals at every city pool. They practice them during trainings. They also all use the same whistle — the Fox 40 Classic. It's plastic and pea-less (meaning it doesn't have a little ball inside). Wagers says they use these to differentiate the lifeguard whistles from other whistles that might be on nearby playing fields

"Referees will often use a metal whistle, which has a very different tone to it," he says. "So, the lifeguards will be able to tell the difference between a long whistle blast for a halftime break and somebody jumping into the water to save someone.


Matt Largey is the Projects Editor at KUT. That means doing a little bit of everything: editing reporters, producing podcasts, reporting, training, producing live events and always being on the lookout for things that make his ears perk up. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.
Related Content