Are Your Lifeguards Adequately Trained?

By Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti

Although it has been longer than I care to admit, I still remember the first time I obtained American Red Cross lifeguarding certification. Sitting on the edge of the high-school pool in my Indiana hometown, I heard the instructor say, “OK, you are all certified, but that doesn’t mean you are ready for every guarding environment. So, if someone hires you for ocean or beachfront guarding in the future, for heaven’s sake, get more training!”

Those words echo through my mind each time I visit an environment I consider difficult to guard. Lakes can be opaque, oceans can be choppy, and water parks can have obstacles and attractions that don’t occur in nature. For those who supervise these environments, making sure lifeguards are properly prepared is critical.

The Training And Supervision Challenge
Drowning is the fifth-leading cause of accidental death in the United States, with about 90 percent of cases occurring in fresh water, and the remaining 10 percent in seawater. The person standing between enjoying the water and potential tragedy is the lifeguard; the training and support that this professional receives is critical to the overall safety of the facility.

Amanda Eaton, director of safety for the Wilderness at the Smokies resort in Tennessee, is well aware of these challenges. The resort is the Southeast’s largest indoor/outdoor water park, with a number of challenges for its lifeguards. For Eaton, addressing these challenges begins with emphasizing lifeguard awareness.

“We have parents sitting around and relaxing; [we look for] a kid with no parent or a kid with a lifejacket with no parent [nearby,]” Eaton says. Looking for deviations from the safest behavior is an important part of the technique that Eaton expects from her lifeguards.

“We have an outdoor water park with a lazy river […and] wave maker. [The guards] make sure all the guests are in a tube,” she explains. This vigilance is not limited to the lifeguards. “We are proactive in making sure management is on deck,” she says. This practice also helps foster a positive relationship between the lifeguards and management. She notes that it is important to “get to know the guards,” and to do little things to keep them on top of their game, such as bringing them water.

Management is a critical force at a facility like Eaton’s. She encourages other facilities to “have a strong leadership team, and teach to those standards.” Adherence to high standards is important, “even if it is just a five-guard pool,” she says.

Ongoing training is important at the facility. “We have four hours of in-service training a month,” she says, explaining that training can range from conditioning to CPR refreshers to role-playing sessions where some guards play patrons, while others practice lifesaving skills.

Asking The Experts
To assist in keeping her lifeguards at the peak of preparedness, Eaton turns to Jeff Ellis & Associates Inc., international aquatic-safety and risk-management consultants. In the 1980s, the company identified a need for a lifeguarding course specific to water parks, and it devised a risk-management program known as the National Pool & Waterpark Lifeguard Training Course. Richard Carroll, senior vice president and COO of Jeff Ellis & Associates, emphasizes the need for proper training regardless of the type of water environment.

Water parks, he says, demand “vigilance.” He recommends that lifeguards use a scanning zone, an area that they scan continuously during their rotation. This is common for most guarding situations.

However, there are some situations specific to a water park. Carroll explains that lifeguards can increase the safety of splash pools and catch pools by requiring one patron to enter at a time (by timing the entry to a water slide). “Watch each person and see the entry and exit,” he says. This practice includes supervising entry and exit from boats or tubes on river rides and similar attractions. Greeting boats and ensuring safe exits are “the kind of dance you can control,” he adds.

Lakes And Muddy Water
Other types of water venues bring different challenges. For example, Carroll explains that a lake is a highly variable environment, with a number of different potential dangers. Irregular borders may make it more difficult to determine the size and delineation of the scanning zone for each lifeguard. Floating rafts and clouded water may make it difficult to scan the bottom, and the depth of the water may vary in unpredictable ways. “How are you going to search the bottom?” Carroll asks. Environments like this may require a buddy system for both guarding and rescue, and site administrators may wish to require groups to reserve time in the water in order to have a better handle on how many patrons are in the lake at any given time.

Carroll notes that lifeguards who guard oceanfront properties are “usually professionals.” They may be members of an organization like The United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to professional open-water lifesaving. According to the organization’s guidelines, the following challenges are part of open-water lifesaving:

The most challenging assignment for a lifeguard is safeguarding natural bodies of water, which the USLA refers to as open water. Unlike pools and water parks, which are relatively similar regardless of locale, the crowd conditions, water currents, waves, dangerous animals and related conditions of open water pose unique obstacles to maintaining water safety.

If your facility faces any of these obstacles, you may wish to consult with professionals to be sure your lifeguards are adequately prepared.

It is true that each lifeguarding situation brings its own challenges and a need for continual training for the guards that protect it. However, with vigilance from the guards and ongoing support from management, the upcoming season can be a safe and enjoyable one.

Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is a writer, editor, speaker and owner of Hilltop Communications, based in Centerville, Ohio. She can be reached via e-mail at