The average aquatic management staff is very busy. Staff training, including lifeguard courses, often are conducted at specific times that correspond to available instructor staff, pool space and budget.

Occasionally (or in some cases, frequently), a prospective employee will arrive with lifeguard credentials in hand, only needing to be given a rescue tube and pointed in the direction of the nearest vacant lifeguard stand. If you are short-staffed and/or very busy, it may be tempting to do just that.

However, before handing them a rescue tube, consider the following:

1. Are the credentials offered valid? The prospective employee arrives with a paper or card (or set of cards) that indicates they are, in fact, a lifeguard, certified or licensed to perform the duties and skills you would expect a lifeguard to do. But does this paperwork mean anything at all if it is not valid? To ensure it is, investigate the origin. Questions to ask the prospective lifeguard include:

• Where did you receive this training?

• What type of facility did you work at in the past, utilizing this training?

• What was the name of the instructor or instructors of the course?

• What was the date or dates of completion?

Using this information, attempt to contact the facility and instructor. Confirm that the prospective guard passed and has reference materials (such as course textbooks or online training access). Contact the certifying agency to see if records show that the lifeguard has completed the courses indicated. Finally, confirm that the current date falls comfortably within the period of time that the credentials are valid. Document this investigation along with copies of the credentials you will keep on file for future reference.

2. Can these lifeguard credentials be used here? Many training agencies issue certifications or licenses and, depending upon your risk management plan, you may accept one or several. If the training agency is different than the organization you primarily use, differences in protocol may exist that complicate or compromise your emergency action plan.

Lifeguards using different techniques than those practiced during in-service will create chaos during an emergency. Even lifeguards with the same training may be accustomed to site-specific techniques that may not apply to your facility. It will be vital to normalize techniques and procedures with all lifeguards to an established standard. 

This site-specific training would need to be completed in the form of an in-service that covers each emergency action plan procedure for various types of incidents to ensure a consistent standard of care. Additionally, specific training covering scanning techniques and procedures used by the aquatics facility should be reviewed. This training should be completed before lifeguards occupy a guard station on their own, and it should be documented.

3. The card or license states that they know what they’re doing, but there’s only one way to know for sure! Once you determine that the lifeguards’ credentials are valid and consistent with the techniques used at your facility, determine what they actually know through drills and scenarios: a comprehensive in-service training and test-out.

Begin with the prerequisites for the specific lifeguard course they originally completed to determine basic endurance and swimming skills. Ensure that they can reach the bottom of the pool in the maximum depth that they may be responsible for while on duty. Continue by subjecting lifeguards to practical scenarios involving rescuing an active guest in distress on the surface, below the surface, and at the bottom of various pools and attractions.

Next, involve guards in team management scenarios including other guards, utilizing your emergency action plan. These scenarios should cover incidents such as a suspected spinal injury and an unconscious guest in various locations and depths. To ensure lifeguards have retained BLS skills, have them perform single/multiple rescuer CPR/AR (aquatic rescue)/FBAO (foreign body airway obstruction) skills on a manikin for adult, child and infant age groups. First aid skills also should be evaluated through practical demonstrations.

Guards should be able to perform all skills and their knowledge evaluated (practical and written) at the same level required to pass the lifeguard course, at a minimum. It would be reasonable to expect that experienced lifeguards would be able to exceed that minimum standard, once understanding and practice of site-specific procedures and the emergency action plan have been established. It would be wise to follow up on this evaluation by having guards shadow an experienced lifeguard and to make them the subject of an internal audit shortly after being placed on duty.

Ultimately, you’re the one who must feel comfortable with the skills and abilities of any lifeguard, whether you trained them directly or not. A certification states only that the cardholder was capable of performing the skills required to gain the certification on the day the card was signed; a certification does not proclaim competency beyond the completion date on the card. Responsibility for ongoing lifeguard competency is the full responsibility of the employer/ owner/ operator of a facility that accepts certifications.

Establish a policy and procedure that makes sense for your facility’s specific needs, utilizing these suggestions, and periodically review and update them. A quality pre-service, in-service training /test-out program, is essential to providing maximum swimmer protection.