An extra safe guard: is in-service training for lifeguards necessary?

Harriet Turner

Do lifeguards really know how to save lives, or just get a good tan?

Certified on-duty lifeguards are a must at the majority of public and quasi-public aquatic facilities. It’s easy for aquatic supervisors and managers to assume that if a guard is certified, her rescue-skill abilities are high. After all, for a lifeguard to be certified, he must have completed specialized training that includes formal learning sessions, demonstrating rescue, first aid and CPR skills, and a written test. This is a dangerous assumption, however, because many lifeguards need more practice than what the certification process and normal guarding duties demand.

Many aquatic facilities choose to hold in-service training sessions for lifeguards. In-service training is supplemental training that’s separate from the certification process; its purpose is to better prepare lifeguards for an aquatic emergency. Although in-service training isn’t required, facilities are encouraged to provide facility-specific training for employed lifeguards.

In the 1998 International Lifeguard Survey, lifeguards reported that they received higher-quality training while on the job, as opposed to training during the certification process. In-service training benefits lifeguards by forcing them to practice skills and think about how they would react in an emergency. In addition, aquatic facilities benefit by ensuring that their guards know what to do in the event of an emergency, and patrons benefit from a higher level of safety.

Once Certification is Complete

During years of valid certification–most certifications are good for three years–lifeguards aren’t required to receive further training or be tested on their rescue-skill competence. Unfortunately, once certification is completed, rescue-skill abilities may decline without regular practice. In fact, a certified lifeguard may not have even been in a pool for three years before being in a situation where making a rescue is required. These guards do not have the ability to quickly accurately and safely rescue victims of aquatic emergencies. This puts aquatic facility patrons in danger and facilities at legal risk. Nothing should be more important to aquatic facilities than ensuring the safety of their patrons. Currently however, there’s no governing agency that requires aquatic facilities to hold in-service training. Rather, it’s up to aquatic facilities to design and implement in-service training programs that strengthen appropriate lifeguard behavior and rescue-skill levels.

Although the benefits of in-service training seem obvious enough, and have received attention in park and recreation publications, until now, no formal studies have been done to test the effectiveness of in-service training. In the rest of this article, we’ll share the results of a study designed to determine if lifeguards’ demonstrated rescue skills declined, improved or stayed the same without training other than their initial certification.

Testing for Certified Lifeguards

Lifeguards from 14 pools managed by an aquatic facilities management company in North Carolina were used in this study. All lifeguards employed by the company were tested and scored on rescue skills as a requirement of employment. Lifeguards were tested three times through the summer pool season, approximately once a month, from June 2000 through August 2000. No in-service training was done prior to testing.

Pool managers served as the observers and scorers of lifeguards’ skills and were required to score lifeguards from pools they didn’t directly supervise. The form used to rate the accuracy of rescue skills was developed by the company specifically to test the ability of lifeguards to accurately demonstrate rescue skills. Guards’ rescue abilities were measured in such areas as obstructed airway, adult CPR, active drowning, surface passive, submerged passive, surface spinal and submerged spinal. Each section had specific criteria worth varying point values that lifeguards were required to demonstrate. Lifeguards received no formal skills training before or during the pool season.

According to company policy, guards not passing the rescue-skills test–that is, not scoring at least 80 percent of possible points–were suspended from guarding responsibilities and required to practice rescue skills with pool managers until they attained a passing score. Upon passing the rescue-skills test, lifeguards were allowed to resume guard responsibilities.

Reason for Alarm

Lifeguards’ demonstrated rescue skills showed no significant change, either positive or negative, through the summer. Most scores dropped slightly for the second test, but rebounded some-what for the third test. However, CPR and surface-passive scores dropped for the second test, and then showed highest scores on the last test, for an overall improvement from the beginning of the summer. Further, active drowning rescue had a constant decline over all three test periods. These results imply that many of the lifeguards with the company did little to maintain their guarding skills on their own until they were confronted with the fact that their scores dropped on the second test.

The results of this study are alarming, and demonstrate the need for constantly practicing skills and training. No actual practice and critique of skills was provided for guards before test sessions. If lifeguards had received some skills training before skill tests were administered, an increase in scores may have occurred, rather than a decline in scores or a seesaw pattern. This test did measure actual abilities of working guards without any training. True in-service training would give guards the opportunity to practice rescue skills with each other and pool managers.

Results of the rescue-skill tests provide evidence that justifies the need for in-service training. Lifeguards’ rescue-skill abilities didn’t improve as a result of working; in fact, they got worse.

Aquatic facilities need to implement facility specific in-service training as a standard part of employee training and supervision. In-service training should include practicing rescue skills, CPR, first aid, spinal management and the facility’s emergency action plan. This study justifies that all lifeguards should be subject to regular skills training as well as testing. Aquatic facility managers must accept the responsibility of not only hiring properly training lifeguards, but also maintaining the skills that guards are taught during the certification process. Lifeguard certification alone isn’t enough to ensure the safety of aquatic facilities patrons.

Critical Poolside Reading

John Hendrickson, of the American Red Cross, calls The Encyclopedia of Aquatic Codes and Standards “a milestone publication.” With this NRPA publication, you can:

* Evaluate your operating policies against state codes commonly cited.

* Reference standards of care in aquatics.

* Have a resource for help in revising bathing codes.

* Have an excellent guide to the planning process if building a pool.

* Learn a ten-step process to aquatic design.

The publication specifically addresses planning design, level of service standards, pool site selection, site design, instruction, bather loads, sand and grassy areas, fenced barriers, signage, aquatic facility use rules, depth markings, diving wells, water treatment, chemical requirements, safety equipment, operation manuals, lifeguard certification, lifeguard-patron ratios, weather and lightning, spas and hot tubs, and ether areas of pool operation and safety.

The encyclopedia costs $14.95 for NRPA members. Select “NRPA Store” at, or contact Jonathan Howard at 703-858-2190 or

Harriet Turner is the aquatics manager at ViQuest Wellness Center in Greenville, N.C. Hans Vogelsong, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at East Carolina University. Robert Wendling, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at East Carolina University, and the owner of Blue Water Pool Management.

COPYRIGHT 2003 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

You May Also Like

Parks & recreation 2006 Buyer’s Guide

Parks & recreation 2006 Buyer’s Guide A A Advertising & Supply 7630 Cass Street Omaha, NE 68114-3624 (800) 59…

Connecticut court bounces back

Connecticut court bounces back Of course the Greater Stamford Tennis Association (GSTA) offers tennis lessons, but who knew it could teac…

Your words say more – National Therapeutic Recreation Society – Research and Training Center on Independent Living develops “Guidelines for Reporting and Writing about People with Disabilities”

Your words say more – National Therapeutic Recreation Society – Research and Training Center on Independent Living develops “Guidelines for Repo…

Archie Griffin, two-time Heisman Trophy Award Winner – Power Play

Archie Griffin, two-time Heisman Trophy Award Winner – Power Play – Interview Archie Griffin is the only two-time Heisman Trophy Award Wi…