Prepare Lifeguards for Takeoff at Your Camp Aquatics Program

by Cathy Scheder
February 2020
Photo of waterfront staff with "lifeguard" in type on tshirt

Last spring, I had lunch with an old high school friend of mine who had recently switched careers. After almost 30 years as a paramedic/firefighter, he had an opportunity to pursue his lifelong dream career of becoming a commercial airline pilot. As a private recreational pilot, he had logged thousands of hours in small planes since we were in high school, but nothing prepared him for the difficulty of what it took to become qualified as a commercial airline pilot. The airline industry is rigorous (thankfully) in the training and expectations of the flight crew. He spent the better part of a year in classes and simulators before he even stepped onto a plane. And even when he did become certified to fly, he co-piloted first, learning from experienced pilots before he became qualified to captain his first flight. There is no room for error in piloting a plane, or catastrophic events can happen. The fact is that commercial pilots are responsible for the lives of everyone on their planes, not just themselves. It’s no different for lifeguards and waterfront staff.

Lifeguards are trained in physical and strategic skills for rescue response and participate in simulations during their classes in a controlled environment. When they step onto your waterfront or pool deck for the first time, the game changes, and they are now responsible for everyone who takes part in an activity — in, on, or under the water. There is no room for error or catastrophic events can happen. A camp director’s job is to not only make sure they have the necessary certifications but provide them continued opportunities for training and skill development — and not just physical skills, but cognitive skills as well. A split-second hesitation in response, or not recognizing someone in trouble, can mean the difference between a successful rescue and a catastrophic outcome.

Note: Some of the content in the rest of the article are excerpts from Waterfront Management for Camp and Recreation Programs (2nd edition), written by the author, published in 2020.

Finding and Hiring Waterfront Staff

Spring is one of the most hectic times of year for full-time camp staff (outside of the summer program season). Heavy recruiting of campers and staff are competing priorities, and hiring staff sometimes feels like a race to the finish. A word of caution: do not assume that just because you hire a staff member who is a certified lifeguard and check it off your list, that means a) they are qualified for that role, or b) they are qualified to serve in other capacities on the waterfront such as canoe, kayak, sailing, paddle-boarding, or as ski instructors or lifeguards. It just means they have passed a lifeguard course. The only way to know if they are qualified is to get them in the water and see what they can do, and if they can do it successfully. And if they have only had pool experience and have not yet been involved in your lake, oceanfront, pond, or river, they are not yet qualified. But let’s start with who you’re hiring. 

Lifeguard vs. Watercraft Guard

American Camp Association (ACA) standards identify two main titles of aquatic “guards” — Swim lifeguards (ST.12.1) and Watercraft guards (ST.15.1). Swim lifeguards are identified as staff who are certified to guard swimming activities — “To guard each swimming activity, does the camp provide a person who has current certification as a lifeguard by a recognized certifying body” (ACA, 2019). Lifeguards certified by a nationally recognized organization such as the American Red Cross or YMCA are trained to guard swimming activities; nothing else. They are trained for swimming rescues only.

What is a “watercraft guard”? There is no certification titled “watercraft guard.” ACA uses this title to describe certified personnel providing supervision in areas other than swimming. The term “watercraft guard” is a catchall for the purpose of identifying all those other jobs outside the swimming area that can include but are not limited to:

  • boating
  • waterskiing
  • wakeboarding
  • kneeboarding
  • sailboarding
  • stand-up paddle boarding
  • SCUBA diving
  • rafting
  • tubing

“Watercraft guards” as identified by ACA are those staff who supervise all those other watercraft activities such as canoeing, kayaking, sailing, windsurfing, waterskiing, etc. “To guard each watercraft activity for day and resident camp programs and for youth groups, does the camp provide a person who holds one of the following:

  1. Current instructor rating in the appropriate craft from a recognized certifying body;
  2. Current lifeguard training from a nationally recognized certifying body; or
  3. Other acceptable certification” (ACA, 2019)

What does this mean in terms of your waterfront? You need to be cognizant of who you are hiring and for what position. Recognize that ACA standards do identify a qualified lifeguard can fill these positions (option B). However, please be aware that a lifeguard is only trained to monitor and supervise swimming areas and perform swimming rescues. Certified lifeguards are not trained to perform rescues for these other areas of the camp or recreational program, unless they have completed a waterfront module as part of their certification. Even then it does not cover specific boating rescues. Lifeguards have no training in how to conduct a rescue when equipment such as boats, skis, sails, masts, and boards could be a complicating factor. Ideally, if you can hire staff who have multiple certifications in these areas, that is your best approach. The author does recognize that this is not always practical. So, start with staff certified in lifeguard training (either before your program starts or during your training), and then work to get them qualified in other areas such as waterskiing, sailing, canoeing (flatwater or fast water), kayaking, etc.

Certified Does Not Equate to Qualified

Now, let’s go back to the difference between being certified and being qualified. My friend, the pilot, was certified to fly for commercial airlines but did not qualify to captain a plane until he had spent time in the actual cockpit flying with an experienced pilot. The same is true of your waterfront staff. Getting a certification in lifeguard training or other aquatic activity means they have demonstrated they have the physical skills and have learned the process of effecting a rescue — they may not yet have had time on the job if they are a brand-new lifeguard. They need time (either practice through in-service or actual time on the job) to get them qualified to do the job you are asking them to do. Or maybe they logged time working in an aquatics environment, but is it the same as your waterfront or pool setting or different? You need to ensure that someone qualified (a lifeguard instructor) at your facility (or find someone at another camp or aquatics facility who is an instructor) confirms they have the skills to do the job at your site.

Start with Skills Verification

ACA standards require you to verify the skills your staff’s certifications say they have. ST.15.2: “Does the camp require that every camp watercraft guard demonstrate skill in water rescue and emergency procedures for the type of water and activities conducted?” (ACA, 2019). Ensuring that staff members have the appropriate skills is accomplished through a skills verification check (even if they are repeat staff). If you hire a lifeguard or a watercraft guard in your camp or program and do not verify their skills, you can potentially increase the likelihood of injury or death resulting from staff inexperience or inability to perform a rescue. As a result, you may increase your liability exposure following the incident (including potential litigation). Two important aspects for verification of the Swim Lifeguard Skills standard are the following: If your staff have recently been through lifeguard training and you or someone on your staff who is qualified as a current lifeguard instructor (someone who knows how to determine the competency of the skills) have seen staff skills in the water, you can document appropriately that you have verified their skills. If, however, you have sent staff to another camp or organization for their training and you personally have not seen their competence in the water, you need to verify and document their skills, even though they just completed their training.

Preparing Staff for Your Aquatic Environment

Before you even make an offer to a staff member you want to hire, you need to be honest about the type of aquatic environment they will be working in, if only for their own understanding. Guarding in an aquatic area other than a pool setting (which anecdotally is where most lifeguards are trained) is different. Wind, waves, tides, clarity of the water (or lack of clarity), vegetation, and temperature all play a major role. Rescues may be different depending on the depth, size, and layout of your swimming area. Outdoor pools are not indoor pools, and glare from the sun and surface disturbance from the wind are major factors in how well the guards may be able to see your participants in the water. Wearing thicker clothes such as sweatshirts when it’s cooler outside is fine (not usually recommended) as long as your guards know they must perform a rescue immediately, not after they undress down to their swimsuits. If they are going to wear sweats on a cooler day, they better be prepared to rescue and swim in those sweats — which means if you allow it, they better be practicing rescues in sweats.

Training and In-Service

Training is one of the most critical components to managing the waterfront. Through your skills verification you’ve determined whether staff members have the skills necessary to perform the job for which they were hired and have identified any additional training your staff may need before participants arrive (during pre-camp or pre-season training) that is specific to the body of water and type of activities within your program. Now you need to focus on any supplemental training unique to your waterfront and how you continue to keep staff (lifeguards as well as other waterfront staff or watercraft guards) trained. Skills practice, teaching methods, equipment care and maintenance, and team building are all critical components to consistent and thorough training. Especially important is continued physical conditioning, whether that’s through swimming laps or cross-training such as running or biking.

Keep in mind that in-service training is designated time to review skills with your staff and let them practice, which will help them to respond quickly and efficiently. Time designated for training is not the time to do paperwork or have a staff meeting. It is the time to practice and rehearse rescue skills and emergency action plans. Ideally, you should strive for at least one hour of in-service training a week, including:

  • rescue skills
  • assessment of injury
  • review of policies and procedures
  • practicing emergency drills and, most importantly
  • physical conditioning

The more frequently they practice together, the better they will be at responding to any emergency on the water. Your waterfront director should create a consistent training plan for all aquatics staff.

The waterfront or pool setting can be one of the most popular areas in your camp program. Hiring staff who are certified or have the skills to become certified, providing a strong skills verification check, and developing a comprehensive and consistent training and in-service program that raises the bar from being certified to being qualified prepares your staff to “captain” your aquatics program. Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight (as best you can during your busy summer).

Cathy Scheder, EdD, is the managing partner with Second Nature Partners, LLC, an educational and consultation firm specializing in camp and recreation programs. She is an expert in aquatics risk management for the camp and recreation fields and is a faculty member with Expert Online Training. She spent more than 20 years in the camp and youth development field as a waterfront director, program director, and camp director, and is the author of Waterfront Management for Camp and Recreation Programs (2nd edition). You can reach her at secondnaturepartners@gmail.com.