Take Time To Train

By Jim Wheeler

In a lifeguard-certification course, participants learn the skills necessary to protect swimmers and provide emergency care when required. They learn a lot in a 25- or 30-hour course, but how much is really retained over time? No matter what the activity, a human’s ability to perform declines without practice. That’s why an effective lifeguard in-service training program is the backbone of safety and performance.

Seven Skills
What does a lifeguard really need to know to perform properly and effectively to rescue a swimmer or provide lifesaving care? The multitude of skills and knowledge that are introduced in an initial training course can be overwhelming. An experienced aquatic manager understands there are seven basic skills and activities that every lifeguard needs to know:

  • Entry and rescue of an actively drowning guest
  • Entry and rescue of an unresponsive guest
  • Entry and management of a guest with a spinal injury
  • CPR with an AED and the administration of oxygen
  • Basic first aid for common aquatic injuries
  • Scanning an assigned zone
  • Participating in the facility emergency-action plan.

These “basics” build the foundation for what a new lifeguard needs to learn and what a veteran lifeguard needs to reaffirm.

A Superior In-Service Session
It is rare to have enough time to cover all of the desired materials allotted for in-service training. In addition to skill development, there are operational issues that require discussions with the entire staff. Administrative items like substitution policies and filling out time sheets can detract from practicing and improving rescue and emergency care skills. Hold a staff meeting first to discuss operational issues and then follow with a dedicated in-service training session that focuses on key areas of lifeguard development.

With so much material for staff members to know, deciding what to include can be a daunting task. A solid in-service session includes the following:

  • Conditioning
  • Reviewing skills
  • Introducing new skills
  • Practicing skills
  • Practicing scenarios that include problem-solving and/or decision-making
  • Engaging in a friendly competition among the staff. 

The skill portion of the session should begin with a “training-based training” approach, which means that staff members rescue each other in rows, or work in teams to bring an unresponsive guest to the side of the pool and then lift the person out of the water with nearby rescue equipment. This type of training focuses on developing skills and providing care before moving into “reality-based training.” Reality-based training generally consists of “scenarios.” The goal is to build a staff that can function seamlessly as a team utilizing basic skills that have become second-nature through practice.

Every training session should begin with some type of workout to prepare lifeguards for real-life situations—making a rescue when excited, breathing hard, and unsure of the outcome. Typical conditioning drills include the following:

  • Swimming for long periods of time
  • Treading water for extended periods
  • Climbing in and out of the pool
  • Towing partners across the pool.

Staff will learn that training is a good workout and being a good lifeguard requires plenty of swimming.

Reviewing Skills
Following conditioning, it is time to reaffirm something the lifeguards already know or review the focus of the previous training session. The point is to transform those basic skills into second-nature skills. Participants must take these drills seriously and make a great effort.

Teaching staff members how to properly portray a guest in distress is essential. If lifeguards practice under the conditions of rescuing others who portray the struggle of a real drowning victim or who become limp in the water as an actual unresponsive guest would, their chances of performing properly when encountering the real situation will be enhanced significantly. If they can’t take the drills seriously, they are not ready for the reality of rescuing a struggling victim.

Introducing New Skills
One of the seven basic skills should be the focus of each training session. The most critical can be learned first, such as handling an unresponsive guest on the bottom of the pool, or CPR/AED skills. Equipment should be handy so staff members can focus on the particular skill instead of running to get gear or opening gates (this can be saved for scenario time). If staff is practicing a complex skill or rescue drill that involves several steps and many people, the session should duplicate that. The transition between activities should be minimal. If oxygen is to be used, that should be part of the scenario as well.

Practicing Skills And Scenarios
Once the lifeguards have mastered the skills individually or in small groups, it is time to move to reality-based scenarios. These require the staff to be stationed throughout the facility where they would be during actual operating hours. The rest of the staff act as “guests,” and one or more is singled out to be a “victim. The players and roles can be rotated, and the activities can be done as many times as necessary. Incidents that have actually happened at the facility or those that could happen are best used. At the end of each scenario, discussions should be held as to what went well and what could be improved the next time.

Friendly Competition
Finally, some type of friendly competition should be included at the end of each training session. These can be rescue-related races, team skills, or even plain timed swimming. Most participants try harder and seem to have more fun when competing and trying to win. This also helps end training on a good note with a lot of energy.

The most successful training programs focus on building critical skills as a team to protect guests and perform at a high level when called upon. An aquatic manager should work participants hard, keep it real, and continue to make staff members smarter, stronger, and faster.

Jim Wheeler is the Aquatics Manager for the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department and the owner of Total Aquatic Management. Reach him at swimnjim@hotmail.com.