The United States Lifeguard Standards Coalition (USLSC) prepared a 2011 report that summarizes the skills necessary for certification and employment as a lifeguard in America. The report is based on field-leading research and multiple organizations’ past experiences training highly skilled lifeguards. The standards are fully endorsed by the YMCA of the USA, the American Red Cross, and the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA). The goal of a standardized set of training standards is to increase the lifeguard’s ability to prevent injuries and death and hold all certified lifeguards to the same standard.
The USLSC report presents the skills that are most vital to lifeguard training. Based on the research studies reviewed during its preparation, the authors are able to share traits of effective lifeguards and practices that promote safe environments and decreased drowning and near drowning incidents. Lifeguard certification providers need to cover these skills and strategies in depth to ensure that their students are fully prepared to act as lifeguards.
The Coalition recognizes that online training programs are able to effectively teach basic life support (BLS) and specific life guarding skills to students and provide lifeguard certifications in an effective manner. Online programs are able to cover the same content as face-to-face trainings with increased flexibility and availability. The skills, strategies, and procedures covered below are known to be effectively taught both face-to-face and web formats.
Effective Scanning: The Coalition report identifies scanning as a benchmark lifeguarding skill. Although there is no specific training standard associated with the skill, it is declared that practice improves the lifeguard’s ability to detect targets across the entire vision field, rather than focusing on the small area in the center and ignoring areas to the left and right of the center of vision. Focus on the use of head movement, with instructor observation and feedback is a key component of lifeguard training.
Maintaining Vigilance: Lifeguards must display vigilance while on duty. This means that the lifeguard must by ready to detect and respond to minute changes in swimmers’ behavior. A certification program should cover behaviors that decrease a lifeguard’s ability to maintain vigilance, such as extreme temperatures, loud noise, and sugary beverages while focusing on ways to increase vigilance. Being well rested, consuming caffeine if needed, and receiving regular encouragement have been shown to improve lifeguard vigilance.
Preventing In-attentional Blindness: In-attentional blindness is another concern for lifeguards. It occurs when a lifeguard is distracted by another swimmer or event happening in front of him. The lifeguard focuses his vision on one thing and tunes out the surrounding swimmers and happenings. Although the research failed to identify ways to prevent this blindness, the report highlights the need to educate lifeguard of its existence and the need to use diligent surveillance as prevention.
Identifying High Risk Behaviors: Lifeguards need to be able to identify swimmers who are at a higher risk for drowning. Although some studies point out specific age groups, genders, or ethnicities as risk factors, no common patterns were found across history. Instead, one element was identified as a common cause of drowning: alcohol consumption. Lifeguard certification programs should explain the link between alcohol consumption and drowning and encourage policies that prevent those under the influence of alcohol from entering the water.
Taking Breaks: Studies showed that a lifeguard’s vigilance is reduced over time. The longer a lifeguard is required to scan an area, the greater the reduction in vigilance. Although different studies showed different losses over varying time frames, it has been shown that lifeguards need to monitor their alertness and take periodic breaks. By stepping away from scanning and allowing for a rest period, a lifeguard is able to restore his vigilance and be better prepared to monitor the swimmers.
First Aid Skills Needed for Lifeguard Certification
Airway/Suction: Lifeguards must know how to open or maintain an airway in a drowning process victim. The ability to quickly open the victim’s airway and provide rescue breathing is critical to preventing a drowning fatality. Lifeguards must be trained and able to open an airway in the water with or without the use of a flotation aid and once the victim is on land. Lifeguards should also master techniques to prevent vomiting of swallowed water. Some lifeguard certification firms may train life guards in the use of manual and electric suction devices to clear the victim’s throat, but this is not a necessary component of the certification process. A lifeguard should know how to prepare a victim for transportation to a hospital in a manner that protects the airway.
Cervical Spine Injuries: Drowning incidents may be accompanied by spinal injuries. When a spinal injury is possible, due to accidents related to diving, water skiing, surfing, or other activities, lifeguards need to modify their rescue strategies to protect the spine. At the same time, a lifeguard’s energy can be wasted on protecting a victim’s spine when a spinal injury is unlikely. If a spinal injury is suspected, establishing a clear airway takes priority over stabilizing a spinal injury. Once the airway is open, the victim can be immobilized on a spine board for transport to a hospital.
Supplemental Oxygen: Lifeguards can use supplemental oxygen during a rescue, as long as its use does not slow the pace of the rescue. Immediate attention needs to be given to establishing an airway and rescue breathing.
In addition to these skills, a lifeguard must have competencies that go beyond the classroom and prepare the rescuer for situations encountered in the water. The skills discussed below are suggested as water-related standards that all lifeguards should master.
Water Rescue Competencies: A physical skill set (PSS) is necessary for a lifeguard to be able to rescue a struggling swimmer. Being able to detect the emergency is only the first step in preventing an injury or death. Without the physical strength, stamina, and water skills, the life guard is left standing on the side, watching the tragedy unfold. Standards for lifeguard PSS will vary by venue, as dictated by the unique features of that location, but have commonalities between them. The PSS suggested by the Coalition is a baseline list of things that the average lifeguard should be able to do as part of a timed water rescue competency test (WRCT). It includes:
- Entering the water from a lifeguard watch tower of the side of the pool
- Quickly reaching the victim
- Descending to the deepest feature of the water, up to 20 feet
- Retrieving an adult victim (represented by a mannequin)
- Bringing the victim to a safe location
- Preparing the victim for the arrival of EMTs
- Performing CPR for a sustained time period
These requirements are only the beginning of water rescue competencies. Site managers may design tests that include additional components, such as multiple victim situations, navigating strong surf, or using floatation and rescue aids. Lifeguard certification should cover the basic components and offer participants the option of studying advanced rescue techniques in order to provide certifications that prepare guards for rescues in a variety of environments.
Why Earn CPR Certification?
Lifeguard certification is a process designed to prepare a person to work in a situation when water related accidents are possible. The skills and standards listed in this article describe the foundation skills that certification depends on and the types of things a lifeguard will need to know how to do once employed. In addition to the skills discussed above, a lifeguard may need basic first aid skills and techniques for sharing safety guidelines with swimmers in the water. No matter of the swimming expertise of the lifeguard, the working environment desired, or types of swimmers that a lifeguard will encounter, CPR certification is the first step to employment and confidence in one’s ability to save a life.
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