Lifeguarding Children Who Can’t Swim

I took the family to the pool last week and watched a young girl, that did not know how to swim, have free run of the place.  She was wearing a NON Coast Guard approved personal flotation device (PFD).  Her dad had to save her more than once and there was no attempt by the lifeguards to redirect her to a safer vest.  The dad was not a great swimmer either and had a hard time keeping his daughter from hurting herself.

I was stunned at the lack of response by the aquatics staff.  If a family is choosing to use flotation devices for their children, lifeguards should never let children, who cannot swim, wear anything other than a Coast Guard approved PFD.

A good resource on how to select a PFD can be found here:



Who is watching the pool during rest breaks?

I have visited a few pools this summer.  One thing that always strikes me as odd is how often there is no lifeguard presence during rest breaks.  I firmly believe this is a HUGE mistake.  When customers are told the facility provides lifeguards, that means the whole time-not 45-50 minutes of an hour.

Over the past few weeks (during rest breaks), I have observed small children swimming on their own and people throwing each other into the pool.  All while there is no lifeguard on the pool deck to intervene.  A good practice is to have a supervisor observe the pool during rest breaks.

While on the topic, are rest breaks required?  The simple answer is not in most areas.  We cannot figure out where or how rest breaks started.  It is one of those things that are now legend and nobody can remember how rest breaks came to be.  Some reasons we have heard include:

  • Allow time for kids to use the restroom and prevent water borne illnesses
  • Gives small children time to rest
  • A chance for kids to re-hydrate and not drink the pool water
  • To give lifeguards a break
  • Present a time to put on sun screen.
  • So pools can sell concessions

Whatever the reason you choose to have rest breaks, a lifeguard still should be watching the pool at all times!

Lifeguard Stations

This week, I came across a pool that had a lifeguard station in the shallow end of the pool-even though there was an elevated station positioned perfectly for the lifeguard to see her entire coverage area.  The lifeguard had her back to the rest of the pool while observing about 20 people (mostly children).  The general use for an in-water lifeguard station is for catch pools at the bottom of water slides.  I have seen it used with other applications effectively, but this is not one of those times.  Let’s discuss a few reasons why:

  1. The lifeguard limited her visibility by being in the water instead of in an elevated station above the water.
  2. There was a portion of her area of responsibility she could not fully see (stairs used as an entrance and exit for the shallow end of the pool.
  3. Patrons regularly obstructed her view so she could not effectively scan her whole area.
  4. She would turn her back to half the area she was supposed to be watching while she paced.

All in all, it was a poor use of a lifeguard.

Below is an excerpt from the Lifeguard University Lifeguard Manual about lifeguard stations:


Lifeguard Stations

To provide proper surveillance, lifeguards MUST be able to see their entire area of responsibility.  There are different types of stations used to ensure that lifeguards can not only see their entire area, but also enforce rules and are able to engage patrons that need assistance.

Elevated Station    

Generally, an elevated station is the best way to maintain the best surveillance of pool patrons.  It provides a clear view of the area and allows a lifeguard to observe a large area.  A common mistake lifeguards make is forgetting to scan the area of the pool directly below their station.

Ground Station

Similar to an elevated station, a ground station is a set point for lifeguards to maintain patron surveillance.  A ground station does not allow the same range of visibility, but does allow lifeguards the ability to enforce rules and make assists easier.


A lifeguard may be assigned a roving station that allows the lifeguard to move between two or more fixed points.  It allows similar advantages as a ground station; with the added benefit of the lifeguard being able to move position based on the surveillance needs of the pool.



  • A lifeguard should not have an area of responsibility greater than a 180-degree viewing area. In short, a lifeguard should not have to turn their body to observe their area or have to look behind them to scan.
  • It should take no more than 20 seconds for a lifeguard to reach a victim. Lifeguard stations should be planned accordingly.

What is the minimum age for lifeguard certification?

The simple answer is AT LEAST 16.  However, there is a little more to it and maturity plays a big factor.  Expert opinions on the topic varies and some believe the age should be as old as 18.  There are other training agencies that will certify lifeguards at 15.  The Unites States Lifeguard Standards Coalition’s published 2011 report only gives minimal guidance on the subject.  The guidelines suggest “lower-stress and lower-risk” lifeguard jobs can be filled by 15 year olds, “higher-stress” lifeguard jobs should be performed by someone at least 16 years old.

The guidelines only give vague suggestions on what low-stress and high-stress lifeguard jobs would be.  As a training agency that does not know what kind of lifeguard job its students will be filling (low vs high stress), we put the minimum age of being certified at 16.  We have also given instructors the ability to withhold certification from anyone the instructor believes lacks the maturity to be a lifeguard.  Although somewhat subjective, maturity matters and we only want to certify people that can perform lifeguard duties in a manner that protects patrons.