Goals and challenges

The city of Georgetown has made a lot of changes when it comes to training. Five years ago, lifeguard skills were less than perfect, and the team had been without a supervisor for a few months. In response, the city re-evaluated its training program and implemented a new, rigorous plan to encourage excellence.

How they did it

An important part of Georgetown’s training methods is the idea of preparing people for potential promotions. To that end, management tries to train each individual for the next step up the ladder. Lifeguards are instructed with an eye toward making them head lifeguards, and head guards to become pool managers. This helps ensure a high-quality staff and also makes them more engaged in the job.

The department also focuses on developing life skills. This includes instructional and management skills, as well as calmness in an emergency. City aquatics officials realize that most of the hires are not going to be professional lifeguards forever, so the goal is to provide them with tools for future success in whatever field they enter. To help reach these lofty goals, Georgetown uses its in-service training to its maximum potential.

The state of Texas requires its lifeguards to practice one hour for every week of work, but doesn’t specify how that hour should be distributed. Some interpret the code as allowing guards to wait long periods of time between sessions. In Georgetown, however, they’re required to complete in-service every week in order to continually work on skills and identify areas for improvement.

If a specific skill needs refining, management will pull the lifeguard aside during their shift for extra practice in that area. The team is evaluated constantly.

The first 15 minutes of in-service training usually entails swim conditioning. During the rest of the time, the lifeguards often work in pairs to receive peer feedback. Observing each other reinforces learning, and exchanging feedback not only helps the group to bond, but it also shines a light on potential leaders.

Lifeguards who remain on the payroll during the off-season must continue in-service training, even if they’re not guarding at that time. Continually brushing up on their skills helps them start the next summer in a stronger place.

Besides in-service training, each guard performs 15 minutes of skills practice before his or her shift begins. This is meant to get them focused and address any skills that need remediation.

There’s an added benefit as well.

A few minutes before the pools open to the public, customers often are gathered around and can watch the drills take place. Many of these onlookers then will compliment the staff, which serves to reinforce the importance of their job. It also lets the public see a group of professionals trained to deal with any emergency.

The city of Georgetown aquatics uses a variety of tools to make drills as effective as possible. In addition to showing Tom Griffiths’ “Disappearing Dummies” video, management created a similar video to help lifeguards learn about the visually challenging areas of their own pools. The staff placed mannequins on the pool floor in spots where they are hidden due to the displacement on the surface of the water. The goal is to show lifeguards which areas of the pool are a little bit more risky and require close attention.

The video underscores how easy it is to miss something.

During bad weather, when it isn’t practical or safe to go into the pool, the guards train by playing homemade, aquatics-themed games based on Bingo or Jeopardy. In Bingo, the caller will read out a question rather than the letter-number combination. This way, instead of saying “B14,” for instance, they will ask, “What is the compression ratio for CPR for an adult?” Lifeguards will look for the answer on their Bingo cards, and put markers down if it’s there. However, they have to know the answer to find it. Solutions aren't provided until the end of the game.

To make it more interactive, the lifeguards themselves actually create the games. This way, as they compile the information, their own knowledge is reinforced. It also utilizes peer training, which allows the team to become stronger and more confident in their own skills.

Other times in bad weather, the lifeguards will perform moulag, where they simulate injuries and go through drills.

The increase in training quality has shown tangible results.

This year, the city of Georgetown aquatics program entered three teams in local lifeguarding competitions. All of them qualified to go to the state level, for which approximately 100 teams vie for only 12 spots. One team placed first, the other second. To make the program fun, a theme is chosen each year for naming the teams. The 2014 theme was “Divergent” and the lifeguards picked ideas from the book such as Dauntless and Four Bravery.

Usually, Georgetown only sends two teams, but a third group proved relentless in its desire to participate, saying that they wanted to go “regardless.” They became Team Regardless, and placed second in the state overall.

When the teams started winning, it proved exciting for the rest of the staff, and they all practiced that much harder in an effort to do as well.