Robin Patrick is anxiously searching for qualified lifeguards. Her waterpark opened on time for Memorial Day, but she’s still short-staffed. The current guards are working extra to cover the holes while Patrick busily trains new guards during the evenings. “We’ve always kind of struggled to have enough guards, but this year is the worst,” says the general manager of Water World and aquatics director for the city of Dothan, Ala.

Despite the shortage, the city holds firm to its employment policy: No 15-year-olds. While Patrick has contemplated appealing to allow 15-year-old lifeguards, she personally hesitates hiring anyone younger than 16.

She’s concerned guards that young may not be ready to handle the responsibilities of the position. Aquatics professionals in most developed nations agree with that thinking. Indeed, the United States is one of only a few countries that allow 15-year-old guards.

Many U.S. aquatics specialists, especially waterpark operators, say trained teens are a critical component in the lifeguard profession. In fact, nearly 30 percent of waterparks allow 15-year-old guards, according to a nationwide Aquatics International survey. These operators argue that guarding is more about training than age.

“One, two or three years is not going to make a huge difference. The whole system is your program and how you create a good professional, regardless of age,” says Farhad Madani, past-president of the National Recreation & Park Association’s National Aquatic Branch.

Research suggests it’s not that simple. Fifteen-year-olds tend to lack some cognitive development that’s key to lifeguarding. But because the human brain is so complex, even the science isn’t definitive. Still, other aquatics professionals say experience tells them that the younger the guard, the lower the maturity level. The real question, they say, is why the aquatics industry insists on hiring guards so young —and risking potential liability. That answer, it seems, is as complex as the human brain.

15 in America There’s little question how America feels about giving responsibilities to 15-year-olds. Rights such as drinking, voting and driving are limited to the over-15 age group. In most states, the minimum driving age is 16. As with lifeguarding, driving applicants must pass a series of tests to get a license. Even so, two out of five deaths among U.S. teenagers are caused by motor vehicle crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Injury Prevention in Atlanta. The CDC says younger teens underestimate hazardous situations or may not be able to recognize them as easily as older drivers.

Operators must weigh many factors when deciding who to hire for lifeguarding positions. Consider these pros and cons of hiring 15-year-olds:
  • Many available
  • Live under parental rules
  • Can be certified and ready to work
  • Likely to come back for next few summers with gained experience
  • Limited work hours
  • Not allowed to dispatch at tops of slides
  • Not allowed to handle chemicals
  • Don’t have license to drive
  • May not have mental maturity to handle responsibilities
  • Appear youthful to others and not taken as seriously

They are also more self-conscious. Tom Griffiths recalls the first time he tried to implement the five-minute scan. Many younger guards were too embarrassed to stand up in their chairs to perform it. “They didn’t want to bring attention to themselves,” recalls Griffiths, Ed.D., director of aquatics and safety officer for athletics at Penn State University in University Park, Pa.

Recent neurological studies back up that observation, says Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, Ph.D., director of neuropsychology and cognitive neuroimaging at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.

“People have realized that some of the jobs, whether it’s a lifeguard or helping supervise in some other capacity, may be calling on executive functions or integrative functions that require judgment, insight and experience in order to respond optimally,” she says. “It’s exactly those kinds of functions that seem to be developing more slowly in the human brain and have not been fully achieved in adolescents.”

Yurgelun-Todd conducted an MRI brain study that asked teens and adults to identify a series of emotions on a face. All the adults correctly identified one facial expression as fear, but many teens read it as shock or anger. Her data also shows younger teens responded differently than did older ones.

Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., backs up those findings. “There is good evidence of greater maturation in the frontal lobes of the brain at 18 as opposed to 15,” says the professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia and author of You and Your Adolescent (HarperCollins, 1997). The frontal lobes, he explains, comprise the region of the brain responsible for judgment and decision-making. “We also know that 18-year-olds have better impulse control, are better able to think ahead and are better at planning, which would be consistent with frontal lobe maturation.”

However, Yurgelun-Todd says that maturity is difficult to map, especially on a brain. “Can 15-year-olds handle being a lifeguard? Probably some can, and some can’t. [A guard has] to make a consistent number of judgments and maintain [an] emotional state to be calm and supportive. I think that takes a fairly mature individual. There may be some adolescents who may not have that level of maturity.”

This explains why the courts often debate whether adolescents should be tried as adults or children, says Reed Larson, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “There is clearly no one age at which adolescents as a group become responsible,” he says. “But age is much less important than individual differences, so using an age cutoff should not make people feel comfortable that other checks on a lifeguard’s character do not need to be made.”

Other safety and rescue professions, such as emergency medical technicians, firefighters and police, require a minimum age of 18.

The Canada Lifesaving Society, the national certifying agency in Canada, recently conducted a comprehensive study to determine a minimum hiring age. After educational and psychological research, as well as a worldwide inquiry of minimum ages in other countries, it decided 16 was the appropriate age. Some provinces and individual facilities require lifeguards to be at least 17 or even 18. According to Executive Director Rick Haga, only about two or three nations, including the United States, set the minimum age at 15.

The individuality factor

But no matter what science may suggest, many experts who have worked with the age group say 15-year-olds are mature enough to handle a lifeguard position.

“Across the entire population, you will probably see greater development in a 17- or 18-year-old than a 14- or 15-year-old,” says Dr. David Markenson, chair of the Advisory Committee for Safety of the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C. “But that doesn’t tell me about an individual.”

Others agree. “I started at 15 years old,” says Madani, who is now assistant director of the Parks and Recreation Department in Austin, Texas. “It really depends on agencies to create a program that makes a 15-year-old the same as a 16-year-old and 17-year-old.”

In fact, Madani says that hiring some 18-year-olds runs into a discipline issue. “They party more,” he says. “They have more stuff to do. They have more freedom.” Whereas, 15-year-olds live by their parents’ rules. The adults still drive their kids to work, so they are ready for duty on time. In addition, Madani has the parents’ help in shaping the guard to be a responsible, mature grownup.

“It’s a great first job as long as nothing happens,” says Griffiths of Penn State University.

But nothing should happen at a well-operated facility, say others. At least, nothing a guard would have to handle alone. “A 15-year-old — or any lifeguard — who works within a well-supervised and managed environment would be part of a risk-management system, and would never be solely responsible for a life-and-death situation,” says Jill White, founder of Starfish Aquatics Institute based in Savannah, Ga.

Agencies such as White’s argue that they make sure their guards are well-trained and rehearsed at responding to any emergency situation at an aquatics facility. They say careful supervision by a more experienced employee is the key to bringing up good guards.

That supervision is what’s supposed to keep guards’ eyes on the water and their focus on ensuring safety, experts say. At facilities where supervision is limited, however, young guards have been seen in a less than professional light. At one Las Vegas hotel, Aquatics International staff members witnessed young guards chatting with other guards while on the stand, sending text-messages on their cell phones or even wearing jeans. It’s this lack of supervision, White warns, that fails to protect teen lifeguards from “an irresponsible burden.”

In addition, younger guards should start with something easier, such as a flat-water pool or shallow-water attraction, Carroll says. “We don’t feel that if you’re 15, working in deeper waterpark environments or open water [is a good starting point],” he says.

In a waterpark or multiuse leisure facility, guards are divided into several zones and constantly monitored by on-deck supervisors, White says. They are also continually receiving training and performance audits, and are responsible for a smaller, specific area of water that typically is not deep water.

Currently, the U.S. Labor Department restricts the number of hours worked by a 15-year-old to 40 hours a week during nonschool days, and no more than eight hours per day. Some states and local jurisdictions may have even more restrictions. Madani’s 15-year-old staff members can work up to 25 hours a week. They don colored fanny packs to distinguish them from older lifeguards.

Many say that starting a teenager early with a junior lifeguard program eases them into the job and environment better. The setup exposes youths to the rigors and training of lifeguards without putting them into rescue positions.

“There are lots of things that can be done that don’t require a lifeguard,” says Alison Osinski, president of Aquatic Consulting Services in San Diego. Osinski, a firm believer lifeguards should be at least 18, lists the following as appropriate for 15-year-olds: maintenance, customer service, rule enforcement, being on the lookout, assisting kids on the play equipment, handing out inner tubes. At the same time, they can gain experience working in an aquatic environment.

“I’m not saying [younger teens] can’t physically do the job,” Osinski says. “They might be able to pass a certification course.” But it’s the ever-present capability of responding without emotions in a real-life, not simulated, crisis that she worries about. “I’ve trained 12-year-olds as lifeguards, but that doesn’t mean I’d hire them.”

Is it worth it?

But Osinski’s ideal 18-year-old minimum would cause increased employment shortages across the board, many industry experts warn. “If guards have to be 18, you pretty much kill all your foundation and recruitment,” Madani says. People age 18 and up tend to seek jobs in the areas of their desired professions, such as working in a hospital or at an office to broaden their résumés. “There are so many jobs open to college kids, it’s unbelievable,” he says.

Conversely, few jobs other than lifeguarding allow 15-year-olds to be employed.

But Osinski and others say the responsibility and the pay don’t match up. “For $6 an hour? You have to take 30 to 40 hours of training before you even get the job, and then we expect [guards] to be responsible for all kinds of things,” Osinski points out.

But lifeguard wages compete with hourly jobs such as retail and food service, not with other professional jobs, according to Carroll. “Plain facts are that older kids look for a higher wage, and lifeguard wages don’t fit into the category for them,” he says. But as the youths move up in the ranks, they also move up the pay scale, which is an attractive incentive. He also says it’s difficult to draw in older candidates because of the job’s seasonality.

For beachfront lifeguards, 16 is the minimum age, and many employers require applicants to be at least 18. The higher pay and benefits package for such guards attract more job applicants, says Chris Brewster, president of United States Lifesaving Association in San Diego. He calls the lifeguard shortage at pools and waterparks “bogus.”

“Whenever anybody says there’s a lifeguard shortage, it’s because you’re not willing to provide the pay and benefits necessary to attract the number of lifeguards you need,” he says. Beaches and waterfronts don’t have that problem because their pay is comparable to other professional jobs.

By staggering starting wages according to age, it’s often possible to get older candidates. In Austin, 15-year-old guards start at $6.50 an hour; 16-year-olds at $7.50; and 17 and up begin at $8.25. However, others say that pay doesn’t always drive teens to choose one job over another. “If you pay $100,000 to each lifeguard, you could have your pick,” concedes Rick Root, president of the World Waterpark Association in Overland Park, Kan. But paying them less doesn’t make them less qualified, he adds.

Liability considerations

Maybe not, but relying on younger, low-wage workers may leave facilities open to more liability. In a courtroom, teens under 18 are still protected by their parents, Madani says. “On a legal level, the attorney can’t drill them as hard if something happens — because they’re young.”

Griffiths says otherwise. “When there’s a drowning and a resulting lawsuit, the plaintiff’s attorney just loves to have 15-year-olds on duty. Their approach is, ‘How could you give this responsibility to a 15-year-old?’ If it’s a 15-year-old who responds or doesn’t respond, they make that a key to the case.”

Whenever a drowning occurs at a waterpark, the community often reacts by accusing the park for hiring such a young person. Others blame parents for using lifeguards as babysitters. The problem, some say, is that many teens and facility patrons treat lifeguarding merely as a summer job. A study Griffiths conducted asked lifeguards what they considered their roles to be. The answers differed by age: Those who were 20 and older saw themselves as educators and professionals who prevent accidents. Those under 19 compared their positions to babysitting.

The other problem is that the industry considers these young guards to be professional rescuers, Griffiths says. “That’s something that gets us into trouble. We’re so proud of our training that we elevate these people to professional status at only 15 years of age,” he says. “Do you know any other professional people who can attain professional status at 15 years of age?”

Such rhetorical questions expose the deep divide that remains over 15-year-old guards. But professionals and experts seem to agree on one thing: Knowing who’s ready to serve is ultimately a judgment call.

“The ones who tell me they’re scared are the ones I know are mature enough to handle the job,” says Water World’s Robin Patrick. “If they’re not a little scared, they don’t realize what kind of responsibility they’ve got on their hands.”