The lifeguard's job is fraught with hazards. As well as managing the welfare and well-being of those using a pool, it is important to keep up with the latest techniques, to stay awake and stave off boredom, and to limit factors that may make the job more difficult. As a result it is not quite the romanticised job people may think it is - and certainly shouldn't be confused with a poolside version of Baywatch.
Qualifications (United Kingdom)
The standard UK Qualification is the National Pool Lifeguard Qualification (NPLQ) foundation level. This provides the candidate with all the essential knowledge to save lives within, and around, the pool. The qualification is examined by the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS) and must be renewed every two years to ensure competency and continued re-training in new procedures.
The examination is composed of three modules: Theory, Practical (dry) and Practical (wet). The lifeguard candidate has to have at minimum 33 hours of logged training, or 20 hours if renewing the qualification.
The components of the examination roughly break down as follows:
Theory - Pool environment and Safety (five hours or two hours for renewal)
Practical (dry) - CPR (Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation) and First Aid (11 hours or eight hours for renewal)
Practical (wet) - Personal skills and immediate response (situation evaluation), Team Skills and Spinal Cord Injury Management (17 hours or ten hours for renewal)
The lifeguard has to pass a series of tests to check their competence and handling of required skills, as well as an acceptable level of fitness. The theory side states the legal responsibilities of the lifeguard and those of their employer.
Qualifications (Rest of the World)
Worldwide there are many different variations in pool lifeguard qualifications. However, wherever you are the syllabus is likely to be fairly similar so there are some important things you will need to be able to do before applying for the course. You should:
Be able to confidently swim 50 metres in one minute on your front
Be able to dive to the deepest part of the pool and recover a brick, or mannequin. You will, in most cases, only be qualified to lifeguard to the depth you can do this first time in the exam.
Ideally have some basic knowledge of First Aid and CPR, though training will be given.
Doing the Job
The most basic requirement in being a lifeguard is having the correct attitude. Caring about those that use the pool and taking on the responsibility for their well-being is an essential prerequisite to being successful. The job also requires a high level of fitness and regular refreshing of basic medical techniques required to manage poolside accidents should they occur.
The work of a lifeguard can be very stressful and difficult, especially in some of the new free form pools as there are often physical limitations to the area that they can lifeguard. Such pools also tend to attract a lot more customers than the traditional 25-metre rectangular pool and it is imperative that there are no blind spots.
Where the lifeguard duties are completed outdoors it is also important to bring appropriate clothing and protection. Sunglasses, a hat and sunblock are important when spending time lifeguarding in hot weather, as is a supply of water and insect repellent - otherwise extended exposure to the sun may be seriously damaging. Equally, where conditions are cold, wet or windy, appropriate clothing to vital to maintain comfort and morale in the face of miserable conditions.
A lifeguards priorities should be:
To be pro-active and stop accidents before they happen
To have the required skills in accident prevention, decision making and rescuing, and use them effectively
To maintain an adequate level of personal fitness
To communicate effectively, knowledgeably and confidently with pool users
To make the pool environment safe, without hesitation, should something make it unsafe, even if that means asking pool users to leave the premises
To make management aware if more equipment or better pool training/guidance is required
Alertness and Boredom
As the lifeguard has to be alert all the time, regular changes of post and a period of time away from the pool are necessary to keep lifeguards fresh and ready for action. There are several reasons for this:
The swimming pool environment can be hot and humid, which, in turn, can induce drowsiness and sleep.
As with any activity that involves intense concentration, after about an hour perceptions dull and concentration can waver. Luckily it is simple to cure by moving around the pool and breaking out of the same perspective.
The work can be very tiring for newer lifeguards as they have to keep moving and tracking people using muscles and the visual centre of the brain much more then normal circumstances require.
Effects of Poolside Incidents
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the major risks to a lifeguard after an incident and will be particularly strong if someone is seriously injured or dies.
The emotional repercussions from an incident may last days, weeks or years. PTSD may also make people tired, have nightmares, suffer loss of memory and sometimes manifest physical effects like headaches, dizziness, shaking, tension and muscular aches.
The most basic advice is to share and show emotions, and also to face reality. This may be much harder then it sounds for a lot of people but it represents important steps on the road to some measure of recovery.
You can find more information on PTSD through BBC Health.