Building Better Scenarios for In-service Training

Scenarios are a necessary part of any in-service training (photo credit, Traci Farris, City of Modesto)


Dedicating several in-service trainings to scenarios will greatly improve the performance of your lifeguard team. Scenarios provide a snapshot of the competency of your staff and help indicate whether or not previous in-service trainings have been effective. Scenarios are dramatic enactments of possible critical incidents that may occur at your facility. They allow lifeguards to build teamwork skills while exploring possible rescue, extrication, and treatment pathways in a non-critical environment. This type of exploration is necessary for lifeguards to be successful during critical incidents.

Scenarios push lifeguards to quickly analyze the situation presented and determine the best course of action. They force lifeguards to coordinate their efforts and act swiftly. Success often requires lifeguards to perform strings of complex skills consecutively and simultaneously to meet the scenario’s objective.

As a trainer, it is important to have a critic eye and differentiate between a lifeguard who can demonstrate proficiency in multiple skills one at a time and a lifeguard who can demonstrate proficiency of multiple skills that are strung together. This is also true for a lifeguard team that can only perform in a handful of specific situations and a lifeguard team that adapts to the situation as the scenario or incident changes and progresses.

Trainers must be conscious of the big picture and avoid the pitfalls that can cause the scenario to lose its potency. Pitfalls include:

  • An unclear scenario objective
  • No time limits within the scenario
  • Too much feedback is given, obscuring the priorities within the scenario
  • The trainer ineffectively manages time and progression, failing to get the lifeguard team to the objective
  • The trainer doesn’t allow the lifeguards to work through challenges

Becoming aware of these pitfalls can help trainers avoid them while increasing the success of their scenarios. To avoid these pitfalls, follow these recommendations:

Clarify scenario objectives: Trainers must break the scenario elements down into its drill components to determine which drills must be performed to complete the objective. Once this is completed, the trainer must determine the drill combinations and sequence necessary to accomplish the objective and complete the scenario.

Allow your lifeguards to practice the basic skills before combining them (photo credit, Emily Plurkowski, Mills college)

Establish time limits within the scenario: Setting time limits for each of the drills within the scenario creates a sense of urgency for the lifeguards. This is crucial for the lifeguard team to perform effectively during a critical incident. If not monitored, a sense of urgency can be lost during the time in-between drill repetitions; all trainings should include drill reset times to keep the level of urgency present. Reset times direct the lifeguard team to prioritize equipment prep and assigning team member duties. Drill reset times should be no more than 15 seconds.   

Individual drills within the scenario should have short reachable mini-objectives that can be achieved within 15-30 seconds at most. Combination drills are pairing of individual drills that the lifeguard team has already become proficient in. Combination drills are more complex but should go smoothly if your lifeguard team’s ability to multi-task and work as a group is there. Time limits on combination drills should last only up to 1½ times longer than regular drill times.

Provide clear, single focused feedback: Feedback should be given immediately following the drill. It should be constructive on only one point to improve. Providing more than one feedback point disperses focus and reduces success. Continue this type of feedback strategy until all necessary points are covered to meet the objective. Feedback can also include a demonstration to assist the lifeguards in understanding the drill. When the lifeguards are successful in achieving the objective, have them repeat the drill to verify their proficiency.

Manage lifeguard pacing through the scenario: Pacing and progress through the scenario should be a priority of the trainer. The lifeguard team should expect the trainer to lead them through drills and activities that help them achieve the objective. If the lifeguard team hits a roadblock with a particular drill, it is the trainer’s responsibility to develop an alternative plan or variation to the drill that allows the team to move forward. Similarly, if the scenario breaks down it should be easy to determine which drill element needed more practice. Keep your drill repetitions to no more than 8-10 times, or stagnation will begin to set in.  If you notice your lifeguards begin lose energy and get distracted, time to move to a new drill.

Have a clear plan and communicate it to your lifeguards (photo credit, Beth Frazer, Consumnes CSD)


Allow the lifeguards to work through challenges: The trainer must be patient and allow the primary rescuer to remain the primary rescuer until he or she reaches proficiency. A common mistake is to rotate the primary rescuer after each drill repetition. There might be concern that the secondary rescuer won’t get the opportunity to learn or participate in the role of the primary rescuer, but recognize that the secondary rescuer is learning both how to support the primary rescuer, and what the primary rescuer expects of them. Scenarios are exploration time, let the lifeguards have it.

Once the lifeguard team is proficient in the scenario, the trainer can add some variations like changes in the wet/dry environment, lifeguard team staffing, and equipment failure. These variations allow the lifeguard team to problem solve and develop their creativity.  

As with everything, the trainer needs to prepare and practice his or her delivery of the scenario for the lifeguard team to reach success. Practice is just as important for the trainer as it is for the lifeguards. Good luck and train hard.

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