Skills Verification For Lifeguards

By Chris Thurber

You wouldn’t hire a new staff member without an interview and references, so why would you rely on a lifeguarding certification without in-water skills verification? Because every camp waterfront is different, owners and directors must ensure that their aquatic director has completed these five items after an employment contract is signed:

  1. Verify that all of the lifeguards have current certifications from a nationally or internationally recognized training program.

  2. Make, organize, and file photocopies of original, official certifications.

  3. Guide all certified guards and look-outs* through a customized, on-site training. (*Look-outs are staff members whom you train on-site in aquatic supervision and rescue, but who do not yet possess a certification. They are enormously helpful but are not included in your certified guards-to-participants ratio.)

  4. Put all trained guards and look-outs through a skills verification. (This can be the last part of Step #3.)

  5. Design, schedule, and implement a regular series of in-service trainings in which lifeguards and look-outs participate during the operating season.

Who Is Your Waterfront Director?
If you have an aquatic director or waterfront director who is already doing all five of the above steps, you have a rock star on your hands. Give that person a raise and an encouragement to return for the coming season! Then, schedule a conference call to review skills verification from last season, update it where necessary, review incidents from last season, and focus on the incremental improvements in your facility and procedures that might further reduce accidents and injuries.

If the five steps seem sensible, but your aquatic director or waterfront director is not currently completing one or more of them, now is the time to plan an upgrade. Schedule a conference call that reviews Steps 1 through 5 and assign action items with specific dates.

If this seems onerous and you’re thinking, “The whole reason I hire certified guards is so that I don’t have to carve out precious time during my on-site training to provide further training,” then I urge you to consider the importance of on-site skills verification. As Dr. Cathy Scheder explains in her book, Camp Waterfront Management, there are many benefits to performing a skills verification:

  • Discovery of each guard’s strengths and weaknesses, both for their edification, your assignment of duties, and the design of in-service trainings

  • Enhancement of all guards’ competence and confidence, especially in the site-specific idiosyncrasies (e.g., lighting, depth, current, weather, activities, hazards) that could make the difference between a competent rescue and a bungled one

  • Refinement of glitches in current policies and procedures, such as emergency action plans

  • Peace of mind that, in an emergency, guards will respond quickly and effectively.


Reality Check
When I was a newly minted lifeguard at age 15, I felt great relief that I would never again have to perform some of the more challenging skills that were part of my pool-based certification course. For example, I never wanted to perform a double-drowning rescue because I nearly drowned performing the skill. In a pool. In 76°F water. With two friends who were only pretending to panic.

Fast forward a couple of years to a mid-summer, intermediate swim lesson on a windy day at YMCA Camp Belknap on Lake Winnipesaukee. My eight campers were practicing the breaststroke. They were compliant and enthusiastic, eager to pass from Fish to Flying Fish. About half-way across the 25-yard, shallow end of the F-shaped, poured-concrete dock, one boy bobbed up to take a breath midway through his pull. But instead of air, he aspirated a little wave churned up by the west wind. Tired and at the horizon of his nascent skills, he flashed the silent, wide-eyed look of a drowning person. I was lucky that I happened to be watching him rather than one of the seven other swimmers because he instinctively grabbed the legs of the boy swimming in front of him and started frantically climbing up that boy’s torso, desperate for flotation.

I remember thinking That’s a double-drowning and realizing that it had been years since I had even thought about—let alone performed—such a rescue. In my mind, double-drownings were evil inventions of hard-core lifeguard instructors, designed to frighten newbies into taking their job seriously. But not designed to ever be practiced or proficiently performed.

Foolishly but quasi-instinctively, I jumped into the water to rescue the two boys, who were now thrashing around together. I did not alert other staff. There was no rescue tube to grab.

I was lucky a second time because the water was only five feet deep—too much for the boys to stand but shallow enough for me to stand, separate them, and keep my breaststroker’s head above the water while his erstwhile lane partner sputtered to the turning boards.

For weeks later, I replayed my many mistakes, thanked my guardian angel, and considered moving to a different program area. Soccer has many more injuries than swimming, for example, but none as instantly emergent as what I had seen that day during lessons.

Met With Resistance
Ultimately, I not only elected to stay in aquatics, but served as waterfront director for 25 summers. And as you might imagine, I instituted both a pre-season skills verification that was customized to our waterfront and some in-service trainings on active-victim rescues, back boarding, and a lost bather drill.

At first, there were protests from returning staff members. I was the tyrannical new waterfront director who was actually going to make the entire staff—both certified guards and non-certified lookouts—prove their mettle. But just two weeks into my inaugural summer, individual staff members began to pull me aside and confide these sentiments:

  • “I didn’t want to tell you, but my certification course was kind of a joke. Your in-service training actually taught me how to apply lifeguarding skills in real-life circumstances.”

  • “At first, I hated getting in the water and doing more training, but now I feel much more confident when I’m on duty.”

  • “I like that the campers get to see lifeguards in action. It helps them understand why we have the rules we have and how important it is to follow them.”

  • “I appreciate your listening to our feedback about the lost bather drill. The modifications you’ve made have helped a lot.”

Like any cultural change at camp, professionalizing the jobs of lifeguards and lookouts may be met with some initial resistance. In short order, however, the increased competence and confidence of staff members will eclipse protests and motivate further improvements.

To help get you started, I am sharing versions of Belknap’s Lost Bather Drill and Skills Verification Sheet. Yours, of course, will be different, customized to your facility and personnel. Rather than adopting it wholesale, use the flowchart and matrix that accompany this article as inspiration. I also encourage you to sample the video training modules on aquatics—some hosted by Dr. Cathy Scheder, others hosted by me—that are available on They can be used for both pre-season training and as the foundation of in-service training.

One of my college professors was fond of reminding students in his international relations course that “crisis brings about change.” It does, but not as painlessly as preemptive risk management and continuous professional development. So, after you put something in place for 2019, remain open-minded about revisions and upgrades to these and other aquatic policies and procedures.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is devoted to educating leaders, using innovative content that stirs thinking and compels action. An entrepreneur from a young age, Chris is the co-founder of, the Internet’s most popular library of educational videos for youth leaders. He has been invited to deliver keynotes, contribute articles, and lead workshops at schools and camps on five continents. Learn more about Chris’s books, articles, videos, and in-person workshops by visiting