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Earlier this year I had the opportunity to go to the United States. Like Australia they have the whole range of lifeguards, from terrible to excellent but it was their ‘excellent’ that grabbed me.

In the US there are several lifesaving bodies all competing for the lion’s share of the market by creating their own version of the ‘ultimate lifeguard’. This is driving research, development and lifeguard techniques.

Some companies just train lifeguards. Others recruit people, train them, induct them to your centre, arrange the roster, and determine how they’ll supervise your pools. They do everything. Just like you’d contract out your kiosk here in Australia, in the States you can do the same with supervising the pool. All the centre manager has to do is take the punters money at the gate and test the water. Well, maybe a little more than that but you get the picture. One such company boasts 500 million visitations and no fatal drownings.

One of my roles since leaving local government has been to get back to training lifeguards and I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s where it all starts; turning people into lifeguards.

Last month I heard a bloke saying that lifeguards just aren’t what they used to be. He was generalising of course and one generation has been bagging out the next since the dawn of time. But it got me thinking, what makes a good lifeguard? Over the next couple of days I had a discussion with myself (always entertaining) about the job, the industry and relating that to what I’d seen in the States.

So let’s build the ‘ultimate lifeguard’ starting with a raw recruit…

The Recruit; I heard Andy Dennis of Life Saving Victoria recently say that one of the questions we should ask applicants for lifeguarding jobs is “show me your commitment to lifesaving.” And he’s right. People who genuinely want to protect others tend to self-select for these roles. Questions like these can be helpful in determining who really wants to be a lifeguard and who just wants to earn some summer cash. Having the right person is important. Any of us would rather train a keen newby than be lumped with a fully qualified problem child.

The Trainer; once we have the right candidate we need a decent trainer. They need to have some experience behind them. They need to know their stuff and know where to go for information about new or changing things. They need to be prepared to get wet. A trainer needs to be able to relate to people, accommodate learning styles, be prepared to spend longer with some people and ultimately deem them not yet competent, if that’s what it comes to.

The Training Organisation; Good trainers need the backing of a good training organisation. A group who ensures you are armed with the latest information and training techniques. These days decent PowerPoint presentations are essential; images help the learning and retention process. Proper assessment tools and handouts make the job easier. A balance of course structure and flexibility is good too; not so ridged that there’s no room for alteration and adaption, and not an anything goes affair either. An easy enrolment process and timely return of certificates keeps things happy.

Equipment; Regardless of whether it’s provided by the training organisation or the trainer, these are vital to the quality of the learning. Rescue tubes, spinal boards, manikins, oxygen equipment, pocket masks etc. I’m big on image based learning so, for me I’d include a computer, a projector, a screen and speakers to the list.

So let’s assume we’ve now got a well-tuned training organisation whose army of quality trainers are producing lifeguards who leave their course with their head jammed full of new stuff that they’re bursting to put into practice.

Like getting your driver’s licence, having your P plates doesn’t mean you can drive, it means you’re allowed to drive. You have the skills and the knowledge but no experience. Now’s the time to drive and get experience. Lifeguarding’s the same. Only using their newly acquired skills regularly will cement their ability.

This is the realm of The Centre Manager. Just like a lifeguard needs a good trainer, they also need a good manager. A good manager needs to be an effective leader. Someone who’s also prepared to lead by example and again, get wet. Someone who’s prepared to teach them and schedule training sessions that build their skills and knowledge, and not just CPR; lifeguards have a whole range of skills they need to stay proficient at.

The Duty Supervisor also plays a pivotal role. In some centres this is still the manager. There is a Latin saying; Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? It translates to “who will guard the guards”. Whoever is in charge of any given shift is the person who guards the guards. This is the person who ensures ‘we do what we said we would do’. The effectiveness of lifeguards on deck is a reflection of the supervisor’s ability to lead and control a shift.

 If a lifeguard’s skills are called upon they will be executed under very demanding and arduous conditions. The person in front of them looks like they’re dying, every second counts, a nearby family member is having a complete emotional breakdown… and the lifeguard is trying to remember his training, his CPR, his EAP. Unless he has converted knowledge into muscle memory through regular training he will struggle to perform well in this adrenaline flooded environment.

Too often I hear of lifeguards attending their annual update expecting to be taught all over again. If a lifeguard has been doing regular in-service training then their annual update is a simple assessment with the trainer including any new changes.

The thing that gives the US their edge on excellence is drill. Good lifeguards drill stuff until they can do it quickly. They use the mantra ‘don’t practice until you get it right; practice until you can’t get it wrong’. Our very own GSPO says we should do in service training four times per season. Regular, scenario based training is at the core of producing quality lifeguards.

I recently attended Life Saving Victoria’s 4th annual Pool Safety Summit in Melbourne. What a day! Some of the accounts of in service training presented were truly outstanding. Not only are lifeguards engaged, they’re professional and competent. Nothing makes me happier.

It’s a team effort. We’re all part of an important chain. Sure lifeguards need the right attitude, but it’s not as simple as isolating that alone for a lack lustre performance. If we’re effective trainers, training organisations, managers and supervisors and selecting the right recruits we’re well on the way to swelling the ranks of Australia’s excellent lifeguards.

Don’t practice until you get it right; practice until you can’t get it wrong.