The first step to becoming a lifeguard is to get certified. There are several certifying organizations, including the American Red Cross, Ellis & Associates, YMCA, and StarGuard. After successful completion of the course, lifeguards receive a certification that is valid for two to three years and provides everything a lifeguard needs to know before applying for a job. Or does it?
As aquatic center managers and facility operators, we understand the need for highly trained and qualified lifeguards. The initial training for lifeguards is extensive but the knowledge is not always retained once lifeguards complete the initial certification course. As an employer, we accept their basic lifeguarding certification as evidence that lifeguards should know how to act and respond in an emergency situation once they are put to work with only 28 to 30 hours of initial training. However, it’s not good enough to just accept a lifeguarding certification without verifying skills. It is also critical to continue training after the initial certification. It is the responsibility of aquatics managers to develop well-planned, ongoing in-service training that is conducted throughout the season or year (Espino, 2011). With shortened seasons, dwindling budgets and barely enough resources to open the doors each year – aquatic managers are often challenged with finding the time to provide the much needed additional training.
The City of Chandler Aquatics Division owns and operates six aquatic facilities in Chandler, Arizona with a population exceeding nearing 240,000 residents. These municipal facilities have traditional public pool features as well as modern day water park amenities. The Aquatics Division employs seven full time administrative positions, four full time aquatic maintenance technicians, six regular part-time water safety instructors and 300 part-time temporary lifeguards and water safety instructors. Three of the six facilities operate year round while the other three operate seasonally. In 2011, the City of Chandler recorded attendance during public swim hours of over 305,000 guests visiting six pools – more than neighboring cities operating 27 facilities. Allowing this many guests into these few facilities requires highly skilled lifeguards to ensure a safe visit.
To be eligible to apply for a position, an applicant must have successfully completed the 30 hour basic level lifeguarding certification course and/or the 40 hour water safety instructor certification course. All applicants are tested to verify swimming strength/conditioning and basic lifeguarding/first aid/CPR skills. Once hired, the training continues with a mandatory orientation conducted once a year, five pre-season in-service trainings conducted in May, bi-weekly peak season in-service training conducted June-August, and bi-monthly in-services conducted in the off season months October through February. New hires are required to attend an additional 12 hours of training. All of the training for the water safety instructors, lifeguards, and aqua fitness instructors is conducted in-house.
Over the past several years, the skills and abilities of the new potential lifeguard candidates and newly hired lifeguards have declined. A handful of new lifeguard candidates could not pass the minimum swimming requirements of the initial lifeguard training course and several lifeguard candidates were rescued by the instructors during the initial pre-course skills test. Those who successfully passed the initial training were not strong swimmers but were competent in the skills they were asked to perform and were hired with the expectation of providing them with additional training. The facilities with a large number of veteran lifeguards were able to spend time with the newly hired lifeguards to increase their swimming abilities and improve their rescue skills. However, when a new facility was opened in July 2008 it was staffed primarily with new lifeguards and water safety instructors. The addition of 65 newly certified lifeguards made staff training and development a critical component of operating this facility without incident. Without additional resources to train and time for the new lifeguards to gain experience, the management team had to work through different ways of providing additional training for their newly minted lifeguards. Let’s take a look at how a challenge like this can be addressed through a systematic approach to training that includes a needs assessment, curriculum development, training execution and program evaluation (Goldstein et al., 1993).
Staffing a new aquatic center with inexperienced lifeguards and water safety instructors was going to be a training challenge. The city needed lifeguards who could respond to an emergency, work as a team, and communicate well with the public. The management staff had to think of ways to drill and train the lifeguards in ways that would not impact the budget and in ways the lifeguards could learn and improve their skills with hands on experience while working on the job. Four basic questions helped determine whether training was appropriate (Dresang, 2009):
While the new lifeguards had the skills, knowledge and abilities required to pass the initial lifeguard training certification course, they lacked the experience needed to retain the information and put into practice the skills learned. Without an experienced set of co-workers to help the new staff learn and develop their newly acquired skills, it was left to a management team of four to conduct the additional training and review the skills with 65 new lifeguards during operational hours.
The employees were prepared to build on their previously acquired skills. They were intelligent individuals who successfully passed the certification requirements and the city’s skills test. They were prepared to continue their training.
Since all of the training was conducted in-house the skills and approaches were already approved by the organization.
The identified problem could not be resolved through a transfer of personnel or reorganization. The city needed the hired staff to perform satisfactorily as there were no other city personnel with the basic level training that could be moved to staff this new location.
On-the-job programs utilize the demands and resources of daily work and a designated mentor or supervisor-instructor to train an employee (Dresang, 2009). As previously stated above, there were no additional budget dollars allotted for the training of the new lifeguard staff. Sending staff to additional training was also not an option as there are limited in-state opportunities to do so due to the specialization of the aquatics field.
As an American Red Cross provider, the city utilized the skill practice components and information outlined in the Lifeguarding manual. Specific hours of the work day were identified as possible training opportunities and a Google calendar was created to outline the skills and topics to be covered each day.
The new facility is also the busiest facility, entertaining 1,000 to 2,500 people per day during public swim hours. Executing additional training was going to be tough. In addition to the currently scheduled and budgeted bi-weekly in-service training opportunities, facility management identified several hours of the work day that could be utilized to begin this on-going training; pre-shift, daily skills hour (1 pm) and a daily drill time (3 pm).
Pre-Shift Drill: Staff is scheduled 15 minutes prior to the opening of the facility to prepare the facility for the day. With a full staff on duty, it typically takes about ten minutes to set up the equipment and furniture. This left an additional five minutes before lifeguards need to be at their stations and the gates open to the public making it an ideal, albeit tightly scheduled time to train. To conduct the pre-shift drill, lifeguards report to their assigned chairs for the day, management selects a victim and breaking guards act as the assisting staff. Once lifeguards are in chair, a victim acts out the prescribed scenario, the assisting staff performs a rescue and then the manager debriefs. Since all of the lifeguards are already at their stations, the gates are ready to open on time and without delay each day. The pre-shift drill helps set a vigilant tone for the day by starting off with a rescue scenario before the public enters the pool area. It also provides lifeguards the opportunity to ask questions without criticism from the public.
Daily Skills Hour: The 1pm hour was identified as a manager led skills hour. A calendar was created to outline the specific skills to be performed each day. Since the lifeguard rotation allows for one break every hour, the manager would conduct the same training in a 10-15 minute period three times during the hour to cover each group on break. A manager would meet each group at a designated area of the pool to run through a skills session and answer any questions. Depending on the skill being performed, staff may be in the water with the public or in the training room away from the public. This quick training allows staff the opportunity to practice their skills with mentorship from the manager and ask questions. When skills are conducted in the water with the public, it adds a sense of urgency to perform correctly but with the security of a manager’s assistance.
Daily Drill: The 3 pm hour is dedicated to performing a critical incident scenario. A victim is chosen at random and provided with a scenario. The lifeguards on duty are not given any of the specific information of the drill but are prepared to respond due to the pre-shift drill and manager led practice during the skills hour. The drill was performed and communicated to the public so they could clear the pool and allow all of the emergency action plan steps to unfold as if it were a real emergency. The lifeguards are responsible for moving all patrons out of the water and into the grass areas. A manager is on deck to observe the drill. After the drill is finished, there is a debriefing with the lifeguards on what went well and what they could improve. Since this drill is performed in view of the public, there is pressure on the staff to perform the drill quickly and efficiently to avoid any delays in getting the public back into the pool.
The feedback that program evaluation provides is especially important when inferences, trial and error approaches, and intuition have to play a role in decision making (Dresang, 2009). The purpose of evaluating a program is to correct errors and make improvements. Adjustments can be made with the feedback and honest evaluation of a new program. Without feedback and evaluation of the program, errors become permanent and resources are wasted.
To evaluate the success of this daily training regimen the management team considered the impact on the employees and facility guests visiting during public swim hours in addition to comparing the results of the employee’s skills test and evaluation forms. These verbal and operational cues were used to determine if operational and individual needs were met.
Pre-Shift Drill: Initially, both lifeguards and management had a tough time adjusting to the limited time available and fast pace required to conduct the drill prior to opening the doors to the public. There were several days when a drill was not performed due to lack of time. This typically included days when the manager was overwhelmed with other responsibilities such as tracking down a late or absent staff person, a mechanical issue that required additional attention or time required to correct facility issues before opening, vandalism, janitorial concerns needing attention or any other issue that may arise unexpectedly. These types of issues were relieved once a second manager was scheduled during the opening of the facility. One manager was responsible for handling unexpected issues while the other manager conducted the drill. On days that another manager was not available or the schedule did not allow the overlap, a veteran lifeguard or cashier was instructed to run the drill or asked to handle any other issues allowing the manager to conduct the drill.
The pre-shift drill did not impede the public as it was done before the public entered the facility and was found to be very effective in setting a vigilant tone for the day.
Daily Skills Hour: Initially, the lifeguards were hesitant about giving up their break to perform skills they felt were satisfactory. This 15-20 minute session impeded on their break and staff felt it did not allow adequate time to eat, re-hydrate, or re-apply sunscreen as well as provide a much needed break from the sun. Management overcame these obstacles by posting the skills hour in the guard room and reminding staff one hour prior to the skills hour. This allowed staff the opportunity to eat their lunch, refill their water bottles and plan their time better to be prepared for the brief training. In addition, management limited the outdoor skills when temperatures were exceedingly hot and opted to perform CPR or First Aid skills review sessions indoors.
The daily skills hour did not impede the public’s use of the facility. Performing these skills in the public eye raised awareness and a sense of safety for the public to see this training in action. There were several positive comments received about how nice it was to see the lifeguards performing their skills and how much safer parents felt about their kids being watched by the lifeguards. The lifeguards were more confident with their skills and many felt they would perform better in an emergency because they were prepared.
Daily Drill: The daily drill was met with the most resistance by facility management, lifeguard staff and the public. Facility management and lifeguard staff were concerned about failing in the eyes of the public. The public was absolutely furious about having to exit the water in the heat of the day, some after recently arriving to the facility or after waiting for over an hour to enter on a busy day. The resistance met by facility management and staff was alleviated after working through the drills. After many successful and quick rescues by the lifeguard staff, management and lifeguards both understood that they could succeed and this task became much easier. Their confidence grew with each successful rescue.
Facility staff and management also implemented better ways to communicate to the public. An announcement was made over the intercom to alert the public to the fact that this was only a drill. The announcement also thanked the public for allowing our lifeguards the opportunity to make their experience at the facility a safe one. The lifeguards were also directed to give a more detailed explanation to individuals as to the reason they were being asked to exit and to reassure the public they would be back in the water in less than five minutes time. Better and timelier communication with the public gradually lessened the public’s frustration with staff. In addition, those people who frequented this facility became accustomed to the brief interruption during their visit and could help explain to newcomers what was occurring.
When conducting these evaluations, it is important to allow enough time after the training program is completed for changes to be implemented. The post-training performance evaluation should not be made until at least three months after the training program is over. Ideally, post training evaluations are made at successive periods to gauge the effects of training over time (Dresang, 2009). The daily training requirements were implemented during the summer of 2010. Staff evaluations were conducted in September and the management team reviewed their responses in November. Changes were made to the daily training requirements beginning in the spring of 2011. The daily training requirements continued into the summer of 2011 with excellent results. Staff continues to improve their scores on their annual skills test and their daily skills checklists. There is also an increase in perceived confidence and a greater amount of positive comments received from the public regarding their perception on staff performance.
To pursue the evaluation of training beyond the issue of how participants react to the program, one might make distinctions between (1) what was learned, (2) what changes in job behavior resulted, and (3) what happened to agency performance, that is, impacts on costs, outputs, and goal accomplishment (Kirkpatrick, 2006). As of now, the daily training requirements have only been implemented at one aquatic center. Evaluation will continue to include a better measurement of what is learned during the training, what changes resulted in job behavior and what the impact is on goal accomplishment when implemented at the other five aquatic centers in the city.
Staff training and development is vital to an organization’s success. Drowning continues to be one of the leading causes of death for children in Arizona making a municipal pool a vital component in reducing such tragedies. Opening the doors to the public requires lifeguard staff that is well trained, ready to respond to an emergency and able to communicate well with guests. By implementing daily training requirements, lifeguards are more confident in their skills and abilities and the public perception of safety increases. Make time to train.
Aquatic Staff (2010). Mesquite Groves Aquatic Center Facility Manual.
Dresang, D. (2009). Personnel management in government agencies and public policy, 5th ed. Pearson Education, Inc.
Espino, M. (2011, May). Beyond the Basics: Today’s facilities demand ongoing lifeguard training. Aquatics International.
Goldstein, I. (1992) Training in Organizations, 3rd ed. (Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1993); John E. Butler, Gerald R. Ferris, and Nancy K. Napier, Strategy and Human Resources Management (Cincinnati: South-Western Publishing Co., 1991); Albert A. Vicere, “The Strategic Leadership Imperative for Executive Development,” Human Resource Planning 15 (1992): 15–46.
Kirkpatrick, D. (2006) “Evaluation of Training,” in Robert L. Craig, Training and Development Handbook, 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.