Training helps new lifeguards stay focused

Recent expansion in the number and magnitude of the City’s swimming pools has resulted in a major re-focus in the approach to lifeguard training.

“It used to be that pools were all rectangular and limited in size and number. It was easier for lifeguards to fulfill their primary function of ensuring that people were safe in the water,” says Jennifer Kuntscher, who’s a member of Community Services’ aquatic strategies group.

But the construction of four huge new recreation centres in recent years, she says, changed many things about lifeguarding at City pools.

The first was that the City needed to hire and train many more lifeguards. Lifeguarding is generally a part-time occupation pursued mostly by post-secondary students, so the influx of new hires dropped the average age and experience of lifeguards in the system.

“Over the years, more and more responsibilities had been added to lifeguards’ chief responsibility of swimmer surveillance and safety,” says Jennifer.

“Periodic additions were easy for experienced guards to cope with, but everything guards are expected to do added up to far too much information for a young, new hire to absorb in three five-hour sessions of initial training.

“So additional training was required. After onboarding, an initial basic training program, a period of ‘shadow guarding’ with experienced guards and three months on the pool deck, they are given the new 15-hour scanning and recognition course.”

(New hires come with National Lifeguard and Aquatic Emergency Care certification. City training is more focused on procedures while ‘on the deck’ and on what they need to know about monitoring swimmers at specific pools).

Jennifer Kuntscher worked with a committee that designed a newly-focused training program for City lifeguards.

Jennifer Kuntscher worked with a committee that designed a newly-focused training program for City lifeguards.

The second major change that came with new pools was that within one much larger space, there could be three pools of varying shapes and sizes, and many, many more patrons both in and out of the water. In other words, plenty of distraction sources.

Jennifer, a guard with 29 years of experience, worked with a committee to devise a comprehensive 15-hour scanning and recognition training course for lifeguards.

“We focused the course on core ‘on the deck’ responsibilities of prevention, scanning the pool and recognition of problems.”

As for learning about other responsibilities like water quality and mechanical operations, Jennifer says new guards will pick up much of that training on the job, learning from more experienced guards.

The course teaches critical safety-related skills, for example the need to scan the area they’re responsible for every 15 to 25 seconds, specific surface-to-bottom scanning patterns, and swimmer behaviour that indicates a person is having, or about to have, trouble.

They’re taught to keep conversations with patrons and other staff to under 60 seconds, because their prime responsibility is scanning the pool, assessing swimmer competence and watching for ‘in-trouble’ behaviours.

The new back-to-the-basics program has garnered respect from the lifeguarding world.

“We presented to the provincial Red Cross Conference in 2014, and this year we were asked back to give a pre-conference course,” Jennifer says. Edmonton has shared the program with municipalities across Canada.

She says the course equips new lifeguards with the critical skills they need to protect swimmers and prevent problems.

“There aren’t many jobs at age 18 that require a level of professionalism that extends to being responsible for people’s lives,” she says.

The City employs about 350 lifeguards. Annual turnover required Community Services to hire 145 new guards in 2015. More than 400 have been trained under the new program since it was first used in late 2013.

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