Lifeguard Training: 101

While spending the summer on a sunny pool deck or beach may be many months away, there are important things to consider now for a safe and successful season. Camps offer many different activities to their campers, so many, in fact, that for some people, aquatic programming may be lumped in with the rest of camp activities. This can be a mistake as aquatic programming carries its own risks, and these need to be planned for well in advance of the first camp session.  

While there are many aspects of aquatic risk-management, this article focuses on lifeguards and, more specifically, their training and preparation. Sometimes, it is only after a tragedy that management focuses on inadequacies in the lifeguards’ preparation, ability, and understanding of their responsibility. By reviewing and evaluating the plan for addressing these issues, you will be on your way to employing lifeguards who not only understand their responsibilities but are competent and confident enough to perform them!

Season Preparation

Months before the first camper comes near the water and long before the first staff-training session, you must inventory and order equipment. First, assess what you already have. Check the inventory of lifeguard uniforms. Will you use the same style and vendor, or do you want to design a new one? What does the lifeguard need? Will you provide T-shirts, shorts, swimsuits, sunglasses, hats, visors, whistles, and water bottles? In what condition are the lifeguard chairs, umbrellas, megaphones, rescue tubes, CPR masks, backboards with body straps, and first-aid kits?  To have a safe and successful summer, you must have equipment to do the job. As equipment ages, you may use it for training and practice, but the important tools of a lifeguard must be “rescue ready” at all times. If the equipment doesn’t look like it can last through another summer, it’s time to retire it.

In-House Or Outsource Lifeguard Training

Shortly after the last camper heads home, you must determine how the lifeguards will be trained for the next season. While it may be easier to hire lifeguards trained off-site, you lose the ability to assess the quality of the training. Alternatively, training on-site places the responsibility and logistics of training lifeguards on you, but internal training with capable instructors can substantially elevate the level of quality control.

You may be lucky to have lifeguard instructors in the area who maintain a high standard of training and will send you highly qualified individuals. Regardless, you as the employer must verify skills when selecting employees. Do not rely on a piece of cardboard (certification card) to ensure that campers will be safe. Confirm that every lifeguard you hire is competent to perform all necessary rescue skills. Make the new hires get wet to see if they can swim distances and respond quickly to a person in need. Make them demonstrate their rescue techniques.

For those who don’t have high-quality training nearby, it may make more sense to train all of the lifeguards internally to ensure quality and ease of staff orientation. The desire to “train them right first” and have control of the training schedule may supersede the time saved by relying upon an outside vendor for staff-training needs. Training lifeguards will require more responsibility and additional resources.

In either case, you must teach lifeguards how rescues will be performed at your camp, which has unique features that differ from their previous training, the last place they worked, or items that may have changed at your camp from last season. Educate them about the current and unique qualities at your camp.  

Check The Checklist

The best way to ensure completion of duties and to avoid confusion or mistakes is through documentation, including checklists. Lifeguards and other aquatic-related staff will need to use checklists every day, including opening, closing, and cleaning checklists.

Aquatic-staff members also need to have Emergency Action Plans (EAPs) for different emergencies/situations, telling “who does what, and when.” Examples of various EAPs include:

  • A lightning policy
  • A chemical spill
  • Minor injuries
  • Major emergencies
  • Spinal-injury management
  • Drowning incidents.

These EAPs should be carefully reviewed during the off-season. Just because the EAPs are 10 years old or “worked last year” doesn’t mean they cannot be improved. 

The EAPs simply state what you expect the lifeguards (and other rescue team/management) to do when something happens. It really helps to have clear documentation to guide the way.     

Supervisors

So, your lifeguards are now certified and orientated to your camp specifics, and equipment is all in place. So you no longer need to be concerned about your pool or beach, right? Sorry, wrong. The best lifeguards are developed through continuous training and consistent supervision until the very end of summer. No matter how well a lifeguard is trained, without proper supervision, he or she may fail to perform.

Without a culture of safety and prevention at an aquatic facility, the risk greatly increases. Just having “lifeguards on duty” will not protect you, but having a professional lifeguard team that understands its “duty” and does it well can make a big difference.

It all comes back to who is directly in charge of the lifeguards. Head lifeguards and pool managers are critical to the operation. Unless the supervisor does the job well, none of the lifeguards will do their job well. Select aquatic supervisors carefully.

In-Service Keeps Skills Sharp

If not practiced, a lifeguard’s rescue skills can deteriorate and be forgotten. It is stressful enough to deal with some of the incidents we expect our lifeguards to handle. It is even more challenging to handle a situation if one hasn’t seen something similar since the very start of summer! Industry best-practices recommend that guards complete 4 hours a month of in-service training. Some do more, others less, but it’s important that all lifeguards get “quality time” to practice and review with other staff. 

Hands-on practice is essential. Lifeguards need to practice the full rescue experience, not just in pieces. Well-designed in-service can illustrate any problem areas as well as increase the lifeguards’ confidence in their abilities. A well-practiced team is much more prepared and ready in a real emergency. Both new lifeguards and the oldest, most experienced staff members can benefit from continued in-service. Ask yourself, “Can my team still do the EAPs effectively?”

Hopefully, this serves as an off-season reminder of what you should do to continue aquatic-safety success, or to help upgrade the system for next season. Seasonal operations can present unique challenges, but every year is an opportunity to improve. What is done pre-season—and what is planned during the season—will directly affect what actually happens during the season. Stay safe out there!

Lake White is the Senior Faculty/Director of Training for Starfish Aquatics Institute (SAI). For more information, visit www.starfishaquatics.org