On Guard

By Heidi Krueger

The possibility of a missing swimmer or drowning victim is one of the most stomach-churning thoughts of a camp administrator. Consequently, it is vitally important for lifeguards to have the proper tools, training, and supervision.

Here are some key factors to ensure that aquatic staff members provide a safe experience:

Certified lifeguards should be trained on specific aquatic practices and equipment.
Lifeguards have, indeed, been tested in emergency recognition and appropriate rescue techniques. However, the curriculum of various certifying organizations is not uniform. Camp leaders cannot assume that lifeguards have been trained in the use of equipment specific to your camp’s pool or waterfront. Lifeguards need to be oriented to a facility’s exact rescue equipment and trained in how and when to utilize it.

Individuals also need to know how his or her certification differs from that of other lifeguards. This may affect how the team responds in a rescue situation. With so many nuances in certification requirements between organizations, a camp’s established aquatic procedures may actually require a lifeguard to perform a skill in which he or she is not certified.

Camp administrators need to be aware that those differences exist, and that this can have serious legal ramifications for the lifeguard and the camp if an emergency arises.

Having a certified lifeguard instructor present during pre-camp training can be a huge benefit to lifeguards and the lifeguard supervisor, as they work to determine the best way to utilize individual certifications.

“Certified” is not the same as “qualified.”
Assuming that a lifeguard is prepared to guard at a facility simply because he or she has a current certification card opens the door to potential disaster. For instance, some lifeguards may only use their certification during the summer. Even lifeguards who guard year-round may get rusty with many of their rescue skills because (hopefully) they don’t need to use them often.

Compare this concept to testing a camp’s smoke detectors. Fresh batteries may have been installed two months prior, but that does not guarantee the smoke detectors are working properly today. Likewise, camps need to regularly test certified lifeguards to make sure they are still qualified.

Observe lifeguards and don’t forget the feedback.
Having someone sit on the pool deck with a clipboard and observe lifeguards is only one approach to supervision. Camps need to develop additional techniques to evaluate lifeguards in a way that is informal and frequent, and ensures they’re doing their job correctly all of the time.

Observing lifeguards doesn’t have to be a production. Walk the beach regularly during swim times, and even sit and chat with campers. Make frequent appearances so guards will train themselves to be vigilant, never knowing when you might stroll by.

Assign other staff members to “hang out at the beach” and observe the lifeguards as well; arm them with a simple checklist, or give them two or three concrete things to watch for. Have them report their observations, and complete a paper checklist in your own office.

Like all employees, lifeguards should know what needs attention and what they’re doing well. All too often, supervisors are compelled to enforce needed corrections but fail to praise staff for a solid performance.

Make a point to share observations with the lifeguards even if no corrective action is required. Teach the lifeguard supervisor to do the same so lifeguards receive feedback on a regular basis, not just during formal evaluations.

Assess skills by making lifeguards use them.
It is good practice to run an emergency drill at least once per week to keep lifeguards’ skills sharp. These drills must be separate from in-service training so lifeguards can actually recognize an emergency and make decisions about how to act appropriately.

Drills don’t always need to be worst-case-scenario, backboard-type drills; practicing likely scenarios can be just as valuable:

• Occasionally “plant” a camper into a scenario and ask that person to do something out of the ordinary, like purposely not moving his buddy tag when he leaves the water to go to the restroom. Then watch to see how long it takes the lifeguards to notice that the numbers are off and note the response.

• Ask impromptu questions when guards are on duty, like, “Keep scanning. What would you do right now if that camper slipped off the ladder and hit her head?” Talking through these scenarios can make lifeguards much less fearful of an emergency situation and much more confident that they can respond.

Set up an environment where lifeguards can do their job.
If a camp requires lifeguards to fill out paperwork, conduct safety checks on equipment, etc., remember that those are secondary tasks that must take a backseat to swimmer surveillance when lifeguards are assigned to a post. But let’s be honest—if time is not planned for guards to do those secondary tasks, they aren’t going to let those things make them late for dinner or miss part of their break. Instead, those tasks may intrude into their surveillance time.

Guards may not see the harm in checking buckles on lifejackets while they “simultaneously” keep an eye on the beach. They may think it makes sense to check for loose ladders while on a walking patrol. In a matter of seconds, an aquatic emergency may occur that should have been prevented with numerous guards on duty.

Emphasize that the primary responsibility of lifeguards is to perform undistracted surveillance while there are participants in the water. Reiterate that you have provided scheduled time for them to perform their other duties. (If you don’t already provide this, it’s time to start!)

Make sure someone is supervising the supervisor.
A supervisor should be more than an experienced lifeguard. This position isn’t simply for someone who can create schedules, test pool water, and call buddy checks. Nor should the position be handed to the most senior lifeguard by default.

Like any other supervisor, he or she must have skills in handling conflict, evaluating staff, and providing effective feedback. Specific training is required to manage employees in addition to managing a waterfront, and the supervisor must be mature enough to approach lifeguards and correct bad habits or behaviors.

Additionally, like all other supervisors in a camp, the aquatic supervisor needs supervision. Who is responsible for making sure the supervisor is doing his or her job well?

To be sure, adopt the “360-degree” evaluation model, and provide a venue for lifeguards to offer feedback about their supervisor. After all, guards see the supervisor at work more than anyone else in camp, and teaching the guards what to watch for in someone else will fortify those concepts in their own minds so they can also apply them to their performance.

Effective supervision of aquatic staff is as much about training and accident prevention as it is about emergency response. By ensuring that lifeguards can and will do their job appropriately all of the time, you can have confidence that one of the camp’s most popular programs will be a safe experience for all participants.

Heidi Krueger is the Director of Summer Camps for YMCA Camp Wabansi and YMCA Camp U-Nah-Li-Ya in Green Bay, Wis. Reach her at heidi.krueger@greenbayymca.org.