Grade "A” Lifeguard

“As a lifeguard you have six hours of boredom [interrupted] by 30 seconds of terror,” says Mike Howard, operations director for Coney IslandPark in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Sunlite Pool at Coney Island receives almost a half-million guests at its three-million-gallon pool during the summer season.

When prospective lifeguards interview, Howard takes into consideration not only the person’s demeanor, but also the answers to a questionnaire, intelligence and previous levels of responsibility.

Don Amblo, vice president of operations for American Leisure, uses a similar method. “We look for attentiveness, eye contact, and if they pay attention to you and their surroundings,” says Amblo. “We also look at how the person completed the application, whether they dressed appropriately, and if they take care of themselves, which shows self-esteem and pride.”

“You are mainly dealing with college and high school kids for the summer and community pools,” says Jill Toennis, aquatic coordinator for the American Red Cross. “It is important to know if they speak with people, not at them, how do they handle conflict resolution, and have they had other jobs.” One should also look at their performance, where and when they received certification, and whether it needs to be renewed.

At Coney IslandPark, potential lifeguards must complete a 200-yard swim, and tread water for two minutes, using only their legs. “If they pass the physical test, they then go onto the interview process,” says Howard. “Eight out of 10 times the person coming into the lifeguard program really wants to be there, and understands the responsibilities of the job.”

So what do you look for when hiring a lifeguard? Is your staff properly equipped to handle a disaster one prays will never happen?

Kicking It Off

Several agencies, including the Red Cross, Boy Scouts of America and the YMCA, offer lifeguard-training programs. Several companies also offer levels of service from consultation to pool management. However, the health department has the final say on the minimum level of training and the number of lifeguards.

“The minimum age for Red Cross is 15 to take the class. The class is 32 hours in length,” says Toennis. “When they finish, they are certified in CPR for the professional rescuer, AED (automated external defibrillator), basic first aid and lifeguarding.”

Lifeguards also should know the facility’s Emergency Action Plan (EAP). The EAP is the chain of command that occurs in a crisis situation. “We review all of the emergency procedures, including each person’s duty when a lifeguard performs a rescue,” says Amblo. “This includes assignments for calling 9-1-1, handling crowd control, and clearing the pool.”

After training, Toennis advises making employment contingent upon the lifeguard passing a water skills evaluation which includes mock active, passive, submerged, and spinal injury rescues.

In-Service Training

Once a lifeguard passes the interview process and certification, in-service training keeps skills sharp. At Coney IslandPark, lifeguards are required to complete four hours of in-service training per month. Each week, lifeguards are required to complete three 500-yard swims, a review of infant, child and adult CPR and active water skills through mock scenarios, including a worst-case scenario, such as a mother and child struggling in the water.

“We use a supervised check-off sheet to insure each lifeguard is meeting the requirements,” says Howard. “The in-service training is worth the time and money you have invested if you can prevent a catastrophic situation at your place.”

“We also review emergency procedures once per week with all of the staff,” says Amblo. “We tell the patrons in advance so they can see their lifeguards perform a rescue drill.”

Evaluating Equipment

In addition to training, the right equipment is essential for lifeguards to save lives while protecting their own. This includes a rescue breathing device or mask. “The mask is a bio-shield with a one-way valve that allows for air to pass from the rescuer to the victim,” says Robin Kiefer, vice president of marketing with Kiefer Sports Group. “The shield protects the lifeguard from bloodborne pathogens and aspirating the victim’s vomit.”

“Lifeguards need to have a pair of good sunglasses and a hat to keep the sun out of their eyes,” says Amblo. “A good pair of sunglasses will take the glare off of the water, allowing the lifeguard to see what is in the water more clearly.”

Lifeguards also need to apply sunscreen every 30 minutes. Some facilities also provide an umbrella, which not only provides sun protection but makes it easier to clearly see the water.

Lifeguards also should have the same uniform to make them easily identifiable to patrons. Plus, each lifeguard should be outfitted with a rescue tube, a floatation device used to secure the drowning person and that allows the rescuer to haul the person to safety.

Whistles are a vital tool for lifeguards. Plastic whistles are the best option because metal whistles tend to chip or break teeth.

All pools should be outfitted with a reach-in device such as a hook, a throw-in device such as a buoy and a spine board with a head immobilizer. Facilities also are realizing the benefit of having an AED on site, which is regulated through the jurisdiction of the local medical director.

In the case of open water, a ring buoy and a throw bag (a coiled rope that sits inside a bag for deployment) typically are used. The bag is heavy enough so the thrower can gain enough momentum to get it to the person in the water.

Open-water lifeguards typically use a hard-plastic rescue can, shaped like a torpedo with a tow line attached. This design allows the rescuer to maintain seven feet of toe line to keep a safe distance from the victim. The hard-plastic rescue tube has a handle for the victim to hold onto to maintain buoyancy. “Use anything orange or red because each has high visibility,” says Keifer. “All ropes should be made from polypropylene.”

Future Of Lifeguarding

Today, kids are often involved in other sports, and learn-to-swim programs aren’t as utilized as in the past. There isn’t the connection between learning to swim, competitive swimming and lifeguarding.

“The greatest problem facing the aquatic community isn’t the compliance with equipment; it is having an adequate number of guards for the facility,” says Bob Lenseth, vice president of operations with Gulbenkian Swim. “If you look at sports today, there are feeder programs that start kids at an early age in a sport.”

“Many areas throughout the country are faced with shortages. Pools can do a lot to improve that by encouraging kids to participate in swimming programs,” says Lenseth. “Then, when the kids are 16, get them into a lifeguarding class to become first-year guards.”

Tammy York is president of LandShark Communications LLC in Greater Cincinnati. She left her state public relations position to pursue her passion for outdoor recreation and marketing. Her upcoming book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Cincinnati, is due out in spring 2009. You may reach her at

Bryan BuchkoComment