Hiring Lifeguards

By Katherine Pickett

As the warm weather approaches, camp administrators are probably considering hiring lifeguards for summer pool and aquatic activities.

Hiring would be much easier if all lifeguards were required to have the same skills verified by the same certification, ensuring they were properly trained in the latest rescue techniques and procedures, as well as on the equipment necessary to perform such duties.

However, this is not the case.

A variety of lifeguard certification programs exist in North America and throughout the world. Although the training aspects of these programs have many similarities, the significant differences might lead to hiring the wrong lifeguard to meet a camp’s specific needs.

In a worst-case scenario, this may lead to a preventable injury or death--and likely litigation.

Yet, many of these issues can be avoided, addressed, or rectified with a proper understanding of a lifeguard’s duties, basic hiring and management principles on the part of camp administrators, and some effective supervisory skills.

Consider the following:

The Duties
Before hiring, an official must be clear as to what a lifeguard is supposed to do. A lifeguard, whether at a camp location, a swimming pool, a river, an ocean, or other waterway, is a person in charge of the safety of everyone in or near the water area.

The lifeguard’s job may include interacting with visitors; enforcing pool regulations, local laws, and ordinances; protecting the environment; saving drowning victims; and providing first aid.

Necessary Skills
Lifeguards are often categorized as “first responders,” which means a crucial part of their training must include emergency medical services (EMS). This includes performing CPR when necessary, as well as tending to wounds, burns, fractures, head injuries, and other medical crises.

Depending on the water area, he or she may be responsible for handling other emergencies, such as boat fires or disabled boats.

For lifeguards to properly perform their duties, camp administrators should provide appropriate rescue equipment: a rescue float or craft for larger water areas, buoys made of hard plastic, binoculars, swim fins, telephone and radio communication devices, and first-aid equipment.

The lifeguard must know how to use this equipment, and how to maintain and repair it.

Most lifeguards also are expected to complete daily logs of their work activities. These forms should be provided.

Although certification programs may vary, a prospective lifeguard must be certified by a respected, nationally recognized certification organization. Part of the hiring process also requires screening and testing to ensure the applicant has the necessary skills and training for the camp’s specific needs.

Finding what other skills the applicant actually has beyond certification is extremely helpful.

Swimmers Vs. Lifeguards
Some camp administrators might believe that a competitive swimmer or a swimming instructor, one who also has lifeguard certification, may be a good candidate to hire for lifeguard duties. This is not necessarily true; in fact, the two skill sets may actually be in opposition.

A competitive swimmer or swimming instructor is typically comfortable in the water, and may not have the awareness necessary to spot potential dangers that might harm others less at ease in the pool. A skilled lifeguard keeps a close eye on the pool, constantly aware for potential signs of people in distress.

Water Dangers
Each year, approximately 6,000 people drown in pools and waterways in the United States. This is the second-leading cause of accidental death for people 15 to 44 years of age.

Further, an estimated 200 children drown, often in public pools, and several thousand others are treated in hospitals for submersion accidents, some of which can cause permanent brain damage and respiratory health problems.

In a majority of cases, these victims were only 10 to 30 feet from safety, which means a lifeguard who was aware of their distress potentially could have saved them.*

Who’s In Charge?
Camp pools are supposed to be fun and relaxed places, which can apply to both users of the pools as well as lifeguards. Sometimes administrators and staff, in this case, the lifeguards, merge the duties and responsibilities. However, administrators must always remember that ultimately, being in charge, they will bear the responsibility if a problem or accident occurs.

Once a lifeguard has been selected, camp administrators must continue to maintain a high-quality and safe aquatic system. They must be sure the lifeguards are well aware that their performance on the job is a primary concern of the camp.

To reinforce this policy, many administrators find it beneficial to do some “wandering around,” to visit the pool or water area frequently, to talk with the lifeguards, and observe any in-service training at the facility. This helps ensure quality control, and is essential to maintaining a safe, healthy, and fun pool this and every summer.

Katherine Pickett is a freelance writer and copy editor. She may be reached at (773) 525-3021.

*U.S. Army Corps of Engineers