Lifeguarding is not for the faint of heart. It’s one of a few occupations where a moment’s hesitation or distraction can result in loss of life. If tragedy occurs, lifeguards are scrutinized.
“Obviously, if something does go wrong, a lifeguard is an easy target for blame,” said Leslie Donavan, president/CEO of Starfish Aquatics Institute in Lincolnshire, Ill.

And responsibility often is placed squarely on a supposed lack of training. This is the case in Anderson, Ind., where the family of a drowning victim is threatening to sue a YMCA, claiming the death resulted from a lifeguard’s lack of training, according to RTV6 in Indianapolis. In April, De’Shaun McNight, a 19-year-old patron at the Madison County YMCA, died ten days after he sank to the bottom of the pool. His sister, Takia Simmons, claims she asked a lifeguard for help twice before he responded. The lifeguard couldn’t retrieve the swimmer, who was eventually rescued by other YMCA staff and bystanders. The family claims the YMCA had a lifeguard on duty who was incapable of rescuing a submerged victim.
Casey Rowlett, director of the Madison County YMCA, stated to AI that the lifeguards were properly trained.

In June, the Madison County YMCA closed its pool and whirlpools, but said this was unrelated to the McNight incident.

Two months after McNight’s drowning, the City of Austin, Texas, was hit with a lawsuit after two-year old Anabelle Lopez nearly drowned in a city pool. Local television station KVUE quoted the child’s mother, Bianca Gonzales, as claiming that lifeguards “did nothing at all” to help. Instead, the family’s attorney said, the lifeguard instructed patrons to retrieve the little girl. Lopez is expected to make a full recovery. The girl’s family is seeking $100,000, claiming the city was negligent by not properly training its lifeguards.

Neither Brad Bonilla, the family’s attorney, nor Kimberly McNeeley, assistant director for the City of Austin Parks and Recreation, would comment, citing pending litigation.

Recognizing that things can go wrong even when a lifeguard does everything right, Donavan acknowledges that training programs that combine rescue skills with prevention techniques, surveillance, hands-on training and site-specific training, help lifeguards succeed.

“[Lifeguard training] is an ever changing process,” she said. “But ... we don’t see a problem with the training of [our] lifeguards, generally speaking.”

Matt Haynes, aquatic product manager for the American Red Cross, is equally confident in the quality of instruction lifeguards are receiving. He used his organization’s curriculum as an example, characterizing it as “extremely robust” and noting that Red Cross-trained lifeguards are educated in CPR, first aid, and AED. “It’s very in-depth — well beyond what most people realize,” he said.

Haynes notes that some facets of training, including the tenet that lifeguards must not take their eyes off the water, may lead some pool patrons to believe that they are being ignored and, therefore, that the lifeguard is being negligent.

These individual incidents may not indicate a problem with lifeguard training across the country, professionals say. Rather, they sometimes occur because lifeguards aren’t provided with adequate site-specific instruction from the individual facility manager. “After [the lifeguards] come out of these training programs, the facility needs to focus on … what’s gonna happen at the water you have at hand,” said Tina Dittmar, president of the Association of Aquatic Professionals.

She notes the importance of a proper on-site managerial network that offers layers of support to lifeguards—an extra set of eyes, someone to give you a break or ask for advice, etc… “If they don’t have proper management or supervision, I think that’s where the failure occurs,” said Dittmar. “You need those layers to help keep people safe in a difficult environment.”