Lifeguarding… an inviolate primer


If you have a swimming pool, you must have lifeguards. If you have lifeguards, their job is to protect the individuals who use your facility. While your executive directors and supervisors may not have aquatic backgrounds, they still need to be very aware of what constitutes a safe swimming environment. The following points are considered basic and inviolate. They include both management procedures and guard behavior.

Any pool that has people in it, on its deck, or is not locked and secured should be actively guarded by at least one, preferably more qualified YMCA staff lifeguards.

  • active guarding means no other concurrent duties, e.g.
    • no water quality checks
    • no swim lessons
    • no cleaning or clearing of deck
    • no other duties that detract from active scanning of the pool area
  • any pool that is not actively guarded should be either
    • within a controlled interior space with locked, self-closing doors, or
    • within a controlled exterior space enclosed with a fence that is at least 4' tall (5' preferred, 8' required in some jurisdictions…please check local ordinances) with self-latching, locked gates
  • qualified lifeguards are individuals who are currently certified (or licensed) by a nationally recognized aquatic training agency, e.g.
    • YMCA of the USA
    • American Red Cross
    • Ellis & Associates
    • Starfish Aquatics Institute
    • other nationally recognized certifying organizations
  • multiple guards are required for other than nominal activities, e.g.
    • if a single guard cannot scan the entire pool adequately, approximately every 10 seconds
    • if there are special events in the pool, such as
    • a birthday party
    • a slide in use
    • an inflatable structure in use
    • if warranted by swimmer load (number determined by ability to properly scan the individual areas of responsibility adequately approximately every 10 seconds, but should not exceed 25 swimmers per lifeguard even though that ratio is not the governing criterion)
  • documentation of lifeguard, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), first aid, or other training certificates should be maintained for all staff to verify qualification; a system that assures renewal of certification before expiration should be in place (e.g., monthly expiration lists)

Lifeguards should strive to actively scan their entire area of responsibility every 10 seconds, even if swimmers are only in a portion of it. The scanning should produce a constant awareness of presence and activity on and below the water's surface, on the pool bottom, and on the pool deck.

  • not scanning the entire area can allow a swimmer to enter unnoticed and drown unnoticed
  • most young swimmers struggle on the surface less than 20 seconds
  • a child struggling under water is difficult to differentiate from a child playing under water
  • with heavier swimmer loads and increased splashing, the bottom can be difficult to see
  • the deck is important…few people drown there, but falls are the primary cause of pool injury

Lifeguards should not compromise their scanning activity by ancillary (assigned) duties or extraneous (elective) activities. Anything that detracts from scanning is a gross disservice to the safety of the swimmers in the pool.

  • ancillary duties are tasks, assigned or not, that are to the benefit of the YMCA, such as
    • water quality testing
    • pool sign-ins (including most deep-water testing, especially if done end-to-end)
    • lane marker moving
    • paperwork
    • deck pick-up / clean-up / squeegee work
  • ancillary duties should be done by
    • other individuals while the active guards oversee the pool, or
    • temporarily inactive guards during concentration breaks while others oversee the pool
  • extraneous activities are activities that are not for the benefit of the YMCA, such as
    • using the telephone, even for supposedly Y-related items
    • texting or any other cell phone use
    • having an extended conversation with anyone (including other staff members)
    • reading
    • leaving the pool deck for any reason
    • eating
    • drinking
    • swimming or other activity, e.g., walking around the pool (not just moving position)
  • extraneous activity should be done on the lifeguards' personal time, e.g., rest breaks

Lifeguards should be aware of the swimming capabilities and/or physical challenges of everyone in the pool and should ensure that non-swimmers are in shallow water and provided additional layers of protection.

  • The Redwoods recommended aquatic safety plan, for all pool and waterfront use is:
  • For all children entering the water, including all children and adults that are part of an outside group (rentals, special events, birthday parties, etc.):
    • Test: Swim test to determine swimming ability. Users who do not take the test, or children under 7 years old, may be automatically designated as non-swimmers.
    • Mark: Clearly mark all users to identify swimming ability.
    • Protect: Most aquatic incidents happen in shallow water (3'-5'). Protect non-swimmers, especially younger children, by restricting them to the shallow end and adding additional layers of protection…

      1. The non-swimmer is actively engaged in a swim lesson or activity with staff;

      2. The non-swimmer is actively supervised, within arms reach of an adult parent or caregiver; or

      3. The non-swimmer is wearing a properly fitted US Coast Guard approved Life Jacket.
    • the individual doing the testing should not be responsible for concurrent guarding of the swimming pool… one task or the other will be compromised; until a child has been tested, he/she should be considered a non-swimmer and protected.
    • demarcation should be used that allows a new or replacement guard to know who is authorized to be in deep water, use the slide, etc. without retesting of the children
    • wrist-bands, necklaces, zinc-oxide markings, or other water-proof marking devices (as long as they have been cleared for use on human skin), etc. can be used
    • consideration should be given to marking all children, using different colors for swimmers and non-swimmers; such practice removes the stigma of having no wristband

**Lifeguards should position themselves so that their view of the pool bottom of their entire area of responsibility is not compromised by glare, building components, or floating play structures.

  • the lifeguards should have both the authority and the responsibility to change positions when confronted with glare, changing swimming patterns, etc.
    • getting down from some elevated chairs (any but the low-level units) requires the presence of another guard so that scanning can continue while the guard gets out of the elevated chair (just as for a standard rotation)
    • moving of a portable elevated guard chair should be done by someone not actively guarding
  • the lifeguard's position should also allow visibility of the adjacent pool deck and any points of entry into the pool within their area of responsibility

Lifeguards should position themselves so that they can reach any area of their responsibility within 10 to 20 seconds (10 seconds is the recommended guideline for YMCA of the USA lifeguard accreditation). No comment or explanation is considered necessary.

Lifeguards should have their eyes at least at the level of a standing adult while actively guarding the pool.

  • if the pool has more than 1,800 square feet of surface area, an elevated chair is needed; pools with more than 3,000 square feet need one elevated chair for every 3,000 square feet or portion thereof (i.e., a 2,900 square foot pool needs at least 1 elevated chair, a 3,200 square foot pool needs at least 2, a 6,050 square foot pool needs at least 3)
  • guards should use the elevated chair unless circumstances dictate otherwise, e.g.,
    • glare has created a situation where the pool bottom cannot adequately be seen
    • swimmers are congregated at an area removed from the elevated chair
    • the guard needs to change vantage points in order to remain alert
  • if the guard does not use the elevated chair, s/he should stand at the pool's edge
    • this position maximizes the angle of vision and thus the view of the pool bottom
    • this position also minimizes the blind spot caused by the edge of the pool (assuming the guard looks down directly in front of where s/he is standing)
  • guards should never sit on standard-height chairs or benches, as such positions
    • decrease the angle of vision and increase the blind spot
    • make the lifeguard too accessible to patrons and involvement in extraneous activity
    • increase susceptibility to slouching and other non-profession, rescue-unready behavior

Lifeguards should have their rescue tube with them, strap attached, whenever they are guarding.

  • the tube is the guard's protection from a frantic victim
  • the strap needs to be around the guard's chest and shoulders so that they will not become separated when in the water
  • if the strap is not around the guard's chest and shoulders before the need for a rescue attempt, the guard will not take time to put it on after the need arises
  • the loose strap should be controlled (gathered) so that it does not become entangled on the chair during a quick exit, or cause the guard to trip while moving

Lifeguards should have their personal protective equipment (airway and gloves) with them whenever they are guarding.

  • the personal protective equipment protects the guard from blood borne pathogens
  • the guard is trained to never attempt a rescue without proper protection
  • if the equipment is not with the guard, they will either
    • delay to obtain it, thus compromising the rescue timing, or
    • ignore getting it, thus risking exposure to blood borne pathogens
  • the equipment can be kept
    • in a fanny pack on the guard's person (preferred), or
    • attached in a small pack between the tube and the strap, or
    • in the hollow of the tube, if it is so equipped

Lifeguards should have appropriate rotation (i.e., concentration) breaks and rest periods.

  • rotation or concentration breaks prevent pool hypnosis and vacant staring
    • should be at least every hour (every half hour is much better)
    • are not necessarily a rest break, but a scanning break…the guard may rotate to another guarding position around the pool, to an ancillary job task (checking water quality, moving lap lanes, moving a portable lifeguard stand, etc.), or to a task outside of the pool area
    • with higher swimmer load, increased activity (e.g., slide, birthday party, etc.), or in the hot sun, more frequent rotation may be necessary
  • rest breaks are to provide relaxation
    • most jurisdictions statutorily require breaks for any employee (who works 4 hours or more) at least every 2 hours
    • these are critical to maintaining guard alertness; normally 10 to 15 minutes in length, they allow the guard to use the rest room, get a drink, exercise to get the blood moving, or just relax

Lifeguards should be properly attired while guarding. This includes the following

  • identifying shirt
    • should say “GUARD” or “LIFEGUARD” not “STAFF” or “AQUATIC STAFF”
    • should be legible from a distance, e.g., 3" letters, not cursive or fancy script lettering
    • should identify the individual clearly from back as well as front
  • swimming suit
  • whistle
  • if clothing is worn other than a suit and an identifying top
    • the additional clothing should not impede the guard's on-deck or in-water movement
    • the clothing should be worn during in-service training to familiarize the guard with its effect on movement, stamina, etc.
    • for laps
    • for treading water
    • for rescue operations
    • if temporary reduced temperatures are an issue, consideration should be given to radiant heaters for the guards; no one can alertly guard a pool if they are chilled, and no one can adequately respond to an aquatic emergency dressed for cold weather
  • if footwear is needed for reasons of comfort, heat, or potential injury
    • it should be an aquatic sandal or other aquatic footwear (e.g., aqua-sox, etc.)
    • street or athletic shoes should not be used as they will either
    • impede movement in the water
    • delay the rescue attempt while they are removed
    • flip-flops or similar footwear should not be worn as the toe can catch during rapid movement and cause the lifeguard to fall, thus delaying or aborting the rescue
  • If the duty station is outdoors, the lifeguard should have
    • sunglasses
    • sunscreen
    • a hat or other shade protection
    • some means of hydration (e.g., bottled water, etc.)
  • If the duty station is inside, elevated, humid conditions should be adequately addressed

Lifeguards should participate in regular, documented in-service training. It should include

  • all guarding and rescue techniques, including regular practice with extrication
  • all aspects of ventilation
  • all aspects of CPR
  • an emphasis on doing, not talking about doing; telling a victim what you are going to do will not save his or her life, nor will it help you learn how to do it better or under pressure
  • the use of human victims, not just mannequin manipulation
    • to familiarize lifeguards with real body contact
    • to learn proper hand placement for pulse checks, chin thrusts, chest compressions, and abdominal thrusts,

Aquatic safety is everyone's responsibility. We must be diligent to maintain absolutely safe swimming pools for our members and guests. There is no excuse for a drowning or near drowning in our pools.

Please call us at 800-463-8546 to discuss this or any other risk management safety tip, or visit our web site at to learn more about YMCA risk management issues.


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