Raising The Bar

By Nichole Bohner

In the world of aquatics, you are only as good as your team of lifeguards. Aquatic facilities across the nation have struggled to recruit lifeguards, and the city of Round Rock, Texas, was faced with this challenge in 2016. The Aquatics Division had just gone through an expansion that nearly doubled the size of the water park. While concurrently dialing in procedures and evaluating needs of new park attractions, the division was also looking for triple the number of lifeguards for the park and outdoor pool operations.

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Lifeguards require a certification to be considered for the job, which requires a monetary investment along with 30+ hours of class and a final skills test. These folks must make an investment and have some skin in the game before they are even eligible for hire.

Coming into the first season at the new Rock’N River Water Park, the division faced some tough operational decisions. We had a shortage of lifeguards, which caused limited pool hours and schedules throughout the city. We made it through that season, determined to never have to do it again with so few people on the team. Our sanity and our public refused to face another August when two of the three outdoor facilities were not opened.

Getting More Lifeguards Through The Doors
The challenge was there, so we were forced to reevaluate recruitment and retention programs. To secure more lifeguards, we had to up the game with the target audience of 15- to 20-year-olds. We needed those people old enough to become lifeguards to know about our opportunities, and for that job to be considered a cool thing to do among the same demographic.

The new approach included an increased presence and recruitment strategy:

  • The number of high school visits was increased, and swag was handed out with our website emblazoned on everything.

  • The website was revamped, and social media channels were created using images to gain the attention of the teen demographic.

  • Every opportunity was taken in the community to begin building brand recognition for the city’s lifeguards.

  • Team social events outside of work time were created to help build the social interactions the team was asking for.

  • Special events were created to increase team comradery and competition during training, in-services, and work meetings.

In 2017, the revamped recruitment strategies proved successful, as all 237 positions on the seasonal team were filled. Moving into 2018, the next challenge was not only to meet those same recruitment goals, but to retain members from the previous year’s crew. Team expectations had also risen, so we had to improve the procedures. This brought us to take part in the Texas Guard Games. The team hit the mark in four of five of the newly revised recruitment and retention categories. The event was shared on the website and social media channels, which increased recognition of the lifeguard program. The team represented the overall group, and prep for the games added an extra level of competition to weekly in-service training.

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The Road To Guard Competition
The state of Texas has a long-standing lifeguard competition system. Regional competitions are held at which unknown scenarios are presented to teams of four lifeguards each. No more than two teams per organization can compete in a regional. Teams are judged and assessed point values on how they react to the surprise scenarios, how quickly they react, and how well they adhere to their training in performing rescues and providing treatment to victims. The top three finishers from each regional competition are then awarded a bid to compete at the state level.

The state competition seemed a far-off aspiration for our team. In years past, we sent teams to regional competition, but had never placed high enough to advance. We made a decision at the end of the 2017 season to change that. The team saw the competition as an opportunity to increase awareness about being a lifeguard in the city, as well as being a way to build team unity. The team’s goal was to earn a bid to state the following year.

Regular training consists of weekly in-services, collaborations with local EMS and fire, and an auditing program where guards receive both internal and external reviews. Training uses real people as victims whenever possible. All team members are expected to “act as if” during training. All aspects of the training program are designed to mentally and physically prepare guards in the event of a real emergency. We utilize the element of surprise to stimulate adrenaline and the on-the-spot nature that real emergencies present. We want guards jumping from their chairs, blowing their whistles, and performing appropriate rescues, and we want them to feel confident about what they are doing.

Competition Time
In looking to translate that confidence into competition, all city lifeguards were invited to try out, with 12 chosen as the official competitive group. The other guards who tried out were given the opportunity to continue training with the team, vying for spots as a competition alternate. The team spent 3 to 4 hours per week of additional training with multiple victim scenarios and what-if situations in order to prepare for the intensity of the competition where a lot of things are happening at once. The team had to assess quickly who and what required the most immediate treatment, and how the team would work through each victim’s care.

The added intensity and comradery became infectious within the aquatic division as a whole. All of the lifeguards were abuzz about the out-of-the-ordinary what-if scenarios of the competition team’s training. Suddenly, the breakroom talks moved to debates about victim care and “what-would-you-do-if-this-happened” discussions. The competition training complemented an already intense lifeguard program, pushing everyone in their performance.

As a result of the emphasis on building a team of competitors, there was a group in place that really bonded and was able to perform under pressure. Because of the team’s outstanding performance, it was rewarded with a first-place finish at the Texas Super Guard Competition! This regional qualifier earned the city the first-ever bid to the state competition. The team’s dedication and extra hours of practice really paid off. Following this victory, the city hosted the Central Texas Regional Competition at the water park facility. Another group of four members from the competition team earned a third-place finish and received a second bid to compete at the state level.

Two teams from the city went on to compete in the Texas State Lifeguard Competition in 2018. While neither brought home a top-place finish at this first state showing, a new goal was set to do so in the future. Overall, by taking part in the lifeguard competition, we were able to gain notoriety for the lifeguard program, increase awareness about job opportunities, and set a new training standard for the entire team. So ultimately, it turned out to be a win!

If you are interested in running your own competition, information and rules from the Texas State Lifeguard Competition are available online at www.tppc.org. To learn more about the city’s lifeguard team, visit www.roundrocktexas.gov/lifeguards.

Nichole Bohner is Aquatics Division Manager for the City of Round Rock Parks and Recreation Department. She currently oversees the newly remodeled Rock’N River Waterpark, while also leading creative direction for the division’s training, recruitment, and social media programs. (Check out @roundrocklifeguards on Instagram!) She has overseen multiple pool and beachfront operations throughout the nation and holds a great passion for all things water and water-safety related. Her team was recently honored as an Aquatics International 2017 Best of Aquatics Award winner for leveraging social media to recruit and manage lifeguards. Reach her at nbohner@roundrocktexas.gov.