The main objective of swim testing is to identify swimming ability so nonswimmers can be kept out of high-risk areas. Upon identification, properly trained lifeguards can provide nonswimmers with tools to help provide for their safety in the water. This may include providing life jackets for use while they are in the pool, or by requiring their guardians to maintain touch supervision with them at all times.

Swim tests provide lifeguards with information on the swimming capabilities of the patrons in the pool, allowing them to do their jobs more effectively. Children and their parents also can benefit from having a better understanding of their swimming capabilities and physical limits. Using the results of the swim test as a starting point, parents can be given information about the appropriate swim lessons for their children so they can learn the swimming and water safety skills needed to help ensure their safety while in or near a water environment.

In 2006, the YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas began implementing a mandatory swim test policy, which requires the swim testing of all children under the age of 16. The policy identifies a nonswimmer as anyone under the age of 16 who refuses to take the swim test or cannot swim 15 feet unaided. At this level, the swimmer is required to wear a life jacket at all times, swim only in the shallow end of the pool, or be within touch supervision of a guardian at all times.

The second level are swimmers who can comfortably swim at least 15 feet or be able to stand in the deepest part of the shallow end with their shoulders out of the water. These swimmers also must be able to regain their footing after swimming in a horizontal position. Level 2 swimmers have unheeded access to any shallow-water areas, but are restricted from all deep water. The third and last level is for anyone who can swim a continuous 25 yards. Patrons in this level are given full facility access and can swim in the deep or shallow ends unaided.

The process of training and educating all levels of staff on the new swim test procedures was deliberate and strategic. Lifeguards were taught not only the swim test policy, but also educated on the data supporting the value of swim testing. This enabled the guards to competently explain and enforce the new policies to all patrons.

For implementation of the test, the first step was to establish clear thresholds for swimming ability with easily recognizable landmarks. This enabled the lifeguards to quickly and effectively determine swimming ability. For example, the first threshold that swimmers were asked to meet was the ability to swim 15 feet unassisted. The 15-foot landmark then was identified in the pool with tape, cones, flags or other visual cues. This allowed lifeguards and patrons to easily recognize the different level goals.

The next step was to be able to clearly mark all swimmers in a way that identified their swimming ability. This marking needed to be something lifeguards could quickly see and use in their continuous scanning. One tested method is using multicolored, reusable wrist bracelets. The bracelets are given out by a lifeguard not on surveillance duty upon completion of the swim test and collected for reuse as the swimmer leaves the pool.

Lastly, regular in-services and staff trainings were held to teach lifeguards and other YMCA personnel on how to effectively communicate the new swim test policy and the data supporting it to all our patrons.

We began the training process for our lifeguards with education that exposed them to not only success stories that similar organization had with swim testing, but also provided them with data on how and why this policy would make them more successful. 

We then had learning sessions where we discussed what their role would be in administering the test. Most importantly, we stress that swim testing should always be done by the “down” lifeguard. 

Lastly, we made swim testing a topic at our regular scheduled in-services. This allowed the guards to talk through the process as a team and learn from each other’s experiences. 

Through this training, swim testing has become part of the culture in the Dallas Y, it’s a practice that is championed by all levels of our organization and is seen as a valued part of the safety culture at each one of our Y pools.

The process of implementing the new swim test policy across the YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas took almost an entire year. Facilities were given the autonomy to modify the swim test policy to fit their individual needs and aquatic environments. For example, facilities with deep-water diving wells could add a fourth level to the test to identify deep-water swimmers.

Through the successful implementation of swim testing, staff and patrons can feel safer in the aquatic environment. And by combining the swim testing with the “Know Before You Go” program an opportunity has been made to teach families about drowning prevention.