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How to Become a Lifeguard – Training, Certification & Jobs

By Laura Williams

lifeguardWhen you hear the term “lifeguard,” you probably conjure up one of two visions: 1. the not-quite-mature high school kids at your local swimming pool, or 2. the beach babes from “Baywatch.”

The reality of a part-time lifeguard job is a little different than the reputations that precede it, and if you’re willing to consider taking a job at a swimming pool, lifeguard positions can actually be an excellent second job for adults looking to supplement their income. In fact, I parlayed my part-time lifeguarding job into a satisfying full-time career because I was willing to open my mind to the possibilities.

The Role of a Lifeguard

The primary role of a lifeguard is pretty self-explanatory: to guard lives. Guards are trained to effectively scan a body of water and the surrounding area to prevent and respond to emergencies. They are trained in professional rescuer CPR and first aid practices, and are taught how to anticipate potential problems before they arise.

However, the job doesn’t end there. Depending on the facility, guards may be required to run the cash register, clean the grounds, clean bathrooms, teach swim lessons, handle customer complaints, and perform other customer service duties as they arise. While these are excellent roles for young people to learn, they often come naturally to adults who have been working for a number of years. In fact, as someone who managed lifeguards for almost six years, I loved hiring adult guards because they were better at remaining focused, weren’t afraid to uphold the rules, and garnered more respect from a growing population of adult patrons.

how to become a lifeguard

Becoming a Lifeguard

Becoming a lifeguard does require an initial investment of time and money. Certification courses cost anywhere from $150 to $500, and take upwards of 30 hours to complete. If you have a specific facility where you would like to work, check with the manager to see what type of lifeguard certification they prefer. Most facilities will accept American Red Cross or Ellis and Associates certifications, but YMCAs may require Y certifications. Additionally, there are several other recognized certifications available.

Before You Take the Course

This will seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many times I’ve been asked about this: In order to be a lifeguard, you need to be able to swim. Certification courses require several swimming tests before the class commences, and if you can’t pass the tests, you can’t continue taking the course. Swimming requirements vary by certification type, but at a minimum you should be able to swim 300 meters (six full laps on a standard 25-meter pool) without resting while using the “rhythmic breathing” technique. Rhythmic breathing is simply the term used when you place your face in the water to exhale before raising it out of the water to inhale.

One other factor that is extremely important is that you must have a strong kick. Some people swim primarily with their upper body, pulling themselves through the water with their arms. To be a lifeguard, however, you have to be able to propel yourself with your legs, as your arms may be holding a victim. Several of the prerequisite tests require that you swim without the use of your arms while holding a weighted item. Without a strong kick, you will have a hard time passing these tests.

If you’re worried about being able to pass the prerequisite swimming tests, check with the facility where you would like to work to see if there’s a time you could practice. Most facility managers are eager to employ individuals with self-motivation, and would be happy to help you prepare.

The Lifeguard Course

Lifeguard courses consist of classroom-based education and discussion, as well as hands-on skill scenarios. Instructors should give you a general syllabus before you begin the class, but always bring your swimsuit, a towel, and a change of clothes to be prepared.

During a lifeguard course you will learn to:

  1. Identify and prevent common land-based emergencies.
  2. Avoid distractions.
  3. Work together with the rest of the lifeguard team.
  4. Activate your facility’s Emergency Action Plan (EAP).
  5. Interact appropriately with customers.
  6. Perform CPR and use an Automatic External Defibrillator (AED), a piece of equipment that can help shock a heart into a normal rhythm.
  7. Provide first aid and emergency care.
  8. Correctly scan a body of water to ensure that all patrons are safe and abiding by the rules.
  9. Identify water-based emergencies.
  10. Perform water rescues for distressed swimmers and drowning victims.
  11. Remove victims from the water.
  12. Respond appropriately to a victim with a head, neck, or back injury.
  13. Backboard a victim in the water or on land when a head, neck, or back injury is suspected – this helps prevent movement that could cause further injury.
  14. Act as a secondary rescuer, assisting the primary rescuer in a variety of tasks.
  15. Fill out paperwork and debrief after an emergency.

Each class begins with a review of past material and an overview of the material to be covered, followed by videos and discussion. You’ll then perform activities that include hands-on skill scenarios. It’s very important that you take advantage of every skill practice, checking with your instructor to make sure you’re performing each activity correctly. You will be tested on these skills later, and if you can’t perform them correctly during the test, you may have to retest – or even retake the entire course.

Some instructors are better than others and take a keener interest in perfection. Be grateful if your instructor is particularly strict about correct form, as this will pay off later on. You’ll be a better lifeguard because of it and you’ll find future in-services and re-certifications easier than your peers. If, however, your instructor seems too relaxed and not detail oriented, take extra time to review the material on your own and, during skills practice, try to pair yourself with a classmate who has a good grip on the material.

Becoming Certified

To pass the course and become a certified lifeguard, you must attend all the classes and perform all the skills correctly. Periodically, you will be required to take a written exam, and on the very last day you will perform a number of skills scenarios. These are lifelike “make it or break it” tests that require you to identify an emergency in progress, respond appropriately, and provide the required care from start to finish.

The American Red Cross only allows two attempts to pass each scenario before you’re required to retake the entire course. Instructors will not provide tips or pointers during these scenarios, which is why it’s so important to master the skills before the final day of the course.

After you’ve passed the written tests and final skills scenarios, your instructor will provide you with the documentation that certifies you as a lifeguard. Keep in mind, however, that this does not guarantee a job. Some young guards assume they’ll automatically receive a job at the facility where they took the course, but managers usually have a limited number of openings.

To enhance your chance of landing a spot, make sure you always act professional, respectful, and courteous to the instructor and other classmates during your course.

lifeguarding

Lifeguard Compensation

Because lifeguard positions are skilled positions, they command a higher rate of pay than most other part-time jobs. Depending on your state, the type of facility, the location, and the length of time you’ve been working, rates may vary significantly. In fact, some full-time lifeguards working on the beaches of California can make more than $200k per year.

Such large salaries, however, are the exception to the rule. Most part-time lifeguards working at swimming pools will make between $8 and $12 per hour, according to Glassdoor.com. Those working in waterfront positions, at water parks, or in supervisory roles may be able to make up to $20 per hour.

A Day in the Life of a Lifeguard

It’s important for lifeguards to go into their jobs with an understanding of what the job entails on a daily basis. While you may be able to spend time outdoors getting a tan and hanging out with your friends, there are many aspects of the job that are not so glamorous.

Consider the following rundown as typical tasks in the day of a lifeguard:

  1. Check in, change, and find out if there have been any issues at the facility that you should know about.
  2. Rotate on deck to take over for another guard.
  3. Blow your whistle and tell Little Johnny not to run. Repeat about 95 times.
  4. Blow your whistle and tell the teens not to: 1. dunk each other, 2. spit water on their friends, 3. chicken fight, 4. use profane language, or 5. make out.
  5. Take their attitude with a smile and send them home when they disobey again, all while keeping your eyes glued to the pool.
  6. Tell parents they have to be in the water with their young children, rather than sunbathing and socializing on the deck. Nod understandingly when they get an attitude and tell you they weren’t planning on getting in, so they didn’t bring their swimsuit. Calmly explain that they still must be in the water with their young children, and stick to your guns when they proceed to berate you. Don’t be offended when they tell their child that because of the lifeguard’s “stupid rules” the whole family has to leave.
  7. Rotate with another guard and repeat.
  8. Sit, stand, and walk while staring at the water for hours (with appropriate breaks, of course).
  9. Deal with the sun, rain, and wind if you’re guarding outside.
  10. Rotate off the deck and report to the office, where you’ll help with cleaning or office work.
  11. Clean the bathrooms.
  12. Clean vomit off the deck.
  13. Treat cuts and scrapes.
  14. Disappoint everyone when you have to clear the pool due to: 1. thunder, 2. vomit, 3. poop, or 4. an emergency.
  15. Test the pool’s chemicals.
  16. Clear the pool at the end of the day and help clean up the facility.
  17. Joke around with your fellow lifeguards and rehash the ups and downs of the day.

lifeguard

Benefits

It’s not an easy job, but there are many of benefits of being a lifeguard:

  • You get paid comparatively well.
  • You have a flexible schedule in a casual environment.
  • You get to hang out with interesting people and make great friends.
  • You get to cool off in the pool during your breaks.
  • You gain lots of customer service experience.
  • You learn responsibility and how to anticipate potentially dangerous situations.
  • You gain valuable lifesaving skills that will stay with you throughout your life, and that can be valuable even in future jobs.

I became a lifeguard when I was only 15 years old, and although I tried a number of other part-time jobs in high school and college, I kept coming back to lifeguarding. In fact, I got my first “real” job after college because I had been a lifeguard – I was looking for a full-time sales position at a new fitness center, and when I walked in for my interview, the hiring manager said, “I see you were a lifeguard. We’re actually hiring an Aquatic Department Head. Would you want that position?”

I was given that position and was able to parlay that experience into future jobs and promotions. Granted, I acquired more experience and certification along the way, but I never would have been able to land such incredible positions had I not had lifeguarding experience.

Drawbacks

As evidenced by my “day in the life” scenario, not everything about being a lifeguard is positive. It can be boring, tedious, gross, and annoying.

There are days you’ll be yelled at by patrons for no reason. There are times you’ll be sick of “babysitting” all the neighborhood kids. There will be regular patrons who are downright crazy, and there is always plenty of “pool drama” to deal with between coworkers. But, from my experience, all of the negatives are far outweighed by the positives.

Lifeguarding: Not Just for Kids

Just because lifeguarding is a perfect part-time job for teenagers doesn’t mean that it’s not also the perfect job for you. As a former aquatic manager, not only can I attest to the fact that I loved my adult employees, I can tell you why adults should be flocking to fill these positions:

  1. Most managers value the added sense of responsibility that adult employees bring to the table, and will try to be as flexible as possible to accommodate scheduling requirements.
  2. Pool managers have a hard time filling daytime shifts because high school and college students are in class. If you’re looking for part-time work during the day, pools often have a great deal of availability.
  3. The pay is better than many other part-time positions, and you may be able to attend free training courses in swim lesson instruction and aquatic exercise instruction, both of which command an even higher rate of pay.
  4. As leadership positions open up at your facility, managers may be more likely to fill them with adult employees, as adults have a level of stability that high school and college students do not typically possess.
  5. If you’re entertaining full-time recreation or aquatic employment, you’re more likely to land a full-time position at an aquatic or recreation facility if you’re already working there part-time.
  6. Some facilities offer benefits that could extend to your whole family, such as discounts on swim center membership or swim lessons.

swimming lessons

Final Word

Though I’m a huge advocate for lifeguarding jobs, I realize they’re not for everyone. If you have an aversion to controlled chaos, constant shrieking, or chemicals, it may not be a good fit for you. Also, lifeguards must be comfortable asserting their authority, so if you’re not sure if you can confidently correct patrons who are breaking the rules, you may want to think carefully before investing your money in a class. To be more confident in your decision to become a lifeguard, check with a local aquatic facility to see if there would be an opportunity to shadow a lifeguard for a day.

Have you ever worked as a lifeguard? If so, is it a position you enjoyed and would recommend to others?

(photo credit: Shutterstock, Bigstock)

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Laura Williams
Laura Williams holds a master's degree in exercise and sport science and enjoys breaking up her day by running her dogs, hitting the gym, and watching TV. Having been in charge of her own finances since the early age of 12, she knows how to save and when to spend, and she loves sharing these tips with others. Laura ditched her career as a fitness center manager for the relative freedom of home-based writing and editing work. She stays busy by working on her own website, GirlsGoneSporty, a website designed to help the sporty woman live the sporty life.

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  • Udontcare

    Found it very interesting

  • Yipfrr

    Bullshit the girl was 15 when she started lifeguarding. Im 15 and ive taken my bronze madalion and cross and i need to be 16 to take the next course to become a lifeguard.. She was either older or underqualifyed

  • Oliver Terrero

    Good read, really motivated me to become a lifeguard although I’m having trouble with swimming. THANK YOU!

  • Stuart

    thanks for the article! When I grow up I want to be a lifeguard just like u! I’m also a junior lifeguard at the long beach high school even though I’m nine. Thank u Laura!!!!!!!!!!

  • dan

    I would really like to be a lifeguard by next summer. I did hear that being a beachfront lifeguard is a super hard job to get, especially in southern California beaches

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