Feature Article - July 2011
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Making Waves

New Strides in Aquatic Safety

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Training Lifeguards

As mentioned in the previous section, no matter how skilled the swimmers in your water, having a great guarding staff is essential. Everyone knows lifeguards must be trained and certified, but what's the most effective way to do this? What qualities make the best lifeguard?

Beginning in 2005, representatives from the American Red Cross, the U.S. Lifesaving Association (USLA) and the YMCA of the USA gathered to form the U.S. Lifeguard Standards Coalition (USLSC). It seems they had identified a problem in the world of lifeguard training.

"As lifeguarding has evolved, lifeguard training methods and standards have been established primarily on the basis of experience and opinion," explains the final report the USLSC, released in February 2011. "This can be a result of trial and error (or success), or of the recommendations of people who are considered to be experts. Just as experience and expertise vary in different organizations, so do methods and standards."

Although lifeguard training seems like a highly organized endeavor, Lachocki of the NSPF, which provided funding for the project, pointed out that before this report, there was no way to know which training practices were based on scientific evidence. "So a lot of people are doing stuff out there with good intent and with commitment, but maybe it's not really the right thing."

The USLSC has done exhaustive research into a broad range of lifeguarding-related subject areas, including everything from physical requirements for success and how to manage cervical spine injuries to the effectiveness of online training. Although some of the evaluations have simply identified gaps where more study is needed, "half of the solution is defining the problem," said Lachocki. "This is really a seminal compilation of information that has to be considered relevant to the practices of any lifeguarding organization anywhere in the world."

Any group can now examine their own lifeguarding practices in light of the evidence available. For example, are you aware of the various external factors that may seriously impact your lifeguards' ability to be vigilant in doing their job? According to studies researched for the USLSC report, everything from encouragement from superiors to the belief that they're being monitored to how much sleep they got the night before to the temperature and noise level in the room to the amount of caffeine and sugar they've ingested can play a role in their effectiveness.

Although in many cases the report does not offer one definitive answer about what should or should not be done, "this allows us to start evolving what we're doing to make it better," Lachocki said. "Anyone making policy can use this."

Visit www.lifeguardstandards.org for more information about the project and to download a copy of the final report.