At one point in time, lifeguard training courses fulfilled the majority of needs for most aquatics programs. Upon completion of training, lifeguards were essentially ready to hit the deck and get in the chair.

Those days are long gone. Pools are more innovative, which means some traditional lifeguarding techniques have to change and adapt to keep up. Instead of the traditional rectangular pools, many aquatics facilities being built or renovated today are designed in a variety of shapes and sizes, and with play features and other attractions that make each facility unique.

Current lifeguard training programs provide what is considered the basics — the foundational information and skills needed to begin work as a lifeguard. These programs also introduce guards to various types of rescue equipment, and effective surveillance and emergency procedures. 

However, these programs are not always effective at addressing facility-specific needs, such as detailed emergency action plans, scanning challenges or working as a team with fellow guards. In large part because of the complexity of new and renovated swimming environments, lifeguards need additional training to deal with the unique aspects of the facilities in which they will be working.

A robust in-service training program is essential for building an effective lifeguard team. Aquatics managers must take control of their training programs to ensure that their teams can handle the variety of situations that may arise. Here are five tips to get you started:

1 Provide facility-specific training. Each facility is different, and each team of lifeguards has its own dynamic and unique approach. Together, the team needs to learn how to provide or adjust patron surveillance for unique facility characteristics, plus the emergency procedures and equipment used at the facility at which they are working.

2 Be sure your lifeguards can work as a team. Aquatics managers must be sure their lifeguard teams — not just individual lifeguards — are properly prepared to respond to any emergency.  The most successful emergency responses are the result of effective planning and teamwork. Your staff should be able to automatically respond in an emergency. To ensure that the entire team is able to respond in various roles, each guard should practice in the role as a primary rescuer and in the role of a supporting rescuer on the team. Practice will make your lifeguards (and you) feel confident in their responsibilities when an emergency occurs.

3 Maintain sharp skills. Even with quality comprehensive initial training, research indicates that regular re-training is required to maintain the knowledge and skills learned. In situations that require guards to apply skills learned on an intermittent or infrequent basis, such as in a pool or waterfront situation, it can be assumed that skills will decline. To keep the skills of your guards sharp, you must provide regular training that puts these skills to use.

4 Ensure physical competency. Another aspect of qualified lifeguarding is having the physical ability to do the job. Guards must be prepared for situations in which they have to swim quickly to a victim, but still retain energy to make the rescue. As part of ongoing training, guards should be tested on a regular basis using a venue-specific water rescue competency test that is timed and includes performance of CPR.

5 Keep up with changing standards. In-service training provides you the opportunity to ensure that your guards stay on the leading edge of changes in the industry. In 2010, we saw updates to the Emergency Cardiovascular Care and First Aid Guidelines and work on the Model Aquatic Health Code. In 2011, the first-ever report of the Lifeguard Standards Coalition was released. All of these efforts highlight the need for more or continued training of lifeguards.

Training cannot stop after the initial session. It is the responsibility of aquatics managers to develop well-planned, ongoing in-service training that is conducted throughout the season or year. 

Such an approach is vital to building skills, creating confidence, strengthening teams and, most importantly, saving lives.

For YMCA of the USA and the American Red Cross, the safety and security of children and adults in and near water is of the utmost importance. This includes teaching proper swimming skills and ensuring that lifeguard staffs are well-trained and prepared to safeguard individuals entrusted to their care.