Do your guards have the physical competencies needed to save lives? Incorporate these in-service training ideas and you’ll always know the answer.

The family is having a wonderful day at one of the nation’s many aquatic venues. The parents see that lifeguards are on duty and carefully monitoring the patrons. Suddenly, there's a commotion near the deep end of the pool. A lifeguard has attempted to rescue a victim who is near the bottom in 12 feet of water.  The lifeguard fails to reach the victim and tries again. ...

Every year scenarios like this one can play out. Lifeguards have been recognized, by law, as “professional rescuers.” This means there’s an expectation that every guard has a minimum level of fitness necessary to perform the job requirements.

National training agencies recognize physical fitness as an important element of being a competent lifeguard. The general public expects guards to be able to make any and all types of rescues at the facilities where they are assigned. There should be no doubt that guards require a certain minimum level of physical competency to be proficient.

Competent guards need specific physical skill competencies, including the ability to:

• Move quickly and safely to enter the water.

• Swim on the surface of the water.

• Surface dive and swim underwater to a specified depth (depending on facility type).

• Bring a victim to the surface.

• Transport a victim to an exit point.

• Remove a victim from the water to a point of safety

• Perform CPR and/or other first aid skills.

For a victim who is drowning or whose breathing or heart has stopped, time until resuscitative care is crucial. A “textbook” rescue does a victim little good if it takes too long to complete. The time it takes to make a complete rescue in a real-life situation is critical. Guards must be practiced and evaluated based on the characteristics of the facilities in which they are assigned.

So how do you “get with the program” and ensure that your lifeguards have what it takes to make any rescue in your facility throughout their employment? The answer is by adding a  robust fitness element that integrates specific facility characteristics as one component of a well-rounded in-service training program. The skill competencies identified involve aerobic and anaerobic fitness, as well as muscular strength and endurance. Each of these competencies should be included throughout your in-service training program.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

Get a head start with pre-employment testing. The first line of defense is to ensure that the lifeguards you hire can do the job needed at your facility. This goes way beyond checking to see if their certifications are current.

During the pre-employment process, consider the following evaluations:

• Distance swim for general swimming ability.

• Perform basic skills and rescues required by the specific training agency.

• Be able to respond to a venue-specific “reality rescue” that requires lifeguards to do a full rescue in a specific amount of time. It should  include performing CPR for a period of time at least equal to the average response time for EMS personnel at your facility.

Require and track specific fitness-related components. These should include the physical skills competencies that lifeguards are expected to complete individually.

Following are some examples.

• At least two 20-minute workouts a week of aerobic activity specific to job skills, such as swimming and performing CPR. 

• Muscular strength and endurance training that includes body weight training, such as sit-ups, push-ups, dips and squats. 

Hold “Iron Guard” competitions. Set up multiple legs with rescue scenarios that require lifeguards to perform a range of possible situations at your facility. One leg could begin in an elevated stand in a zone of responsibility at the widest and deepest sections of the pool, and guards have to retrieve an object from the bottom. Another leg could begin in a roving station at a zero-depth entrance in which guards run to a victim and return to give CPR for a certain amount of time.

Create “Grab and Go” workouts. Have lifeguards write their favorite drills or 10- to 15-minute aerobic swim workouts on index cards, laminate the cards and keep them in the lifeguard office. Guards can randomly draw to get their workout.

Establish a reward system of personal bests. Identify certain combined skill sets from the physical skill competencies with distances and depths that relate to your facility. On a poster in the lifeguard room, track the personal bests of each lifeguard at established intervals. At certain milestones, reward guards who are making significant improvements and for those who are maintaining excellent performance.

Ongoing fitness training is necessary for all lifeguards, whether seasoned veterans or rookies, to maintain the physical competency to perform the job. The public expects this, the law demands it and owners/operators of aquatic venues have an obligation to ensure it. Be sure your lifeguards are always ready to deliver.