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How to Become a Lifeguard: Everything You Need to Know

Your long summer break is finally here and you’re likely starting to plan for summer. Right now, you probably just want to relax after a tough school year. But let’s be real: you have to do something this summer. Will you take extra classes, visit family, pursue an internship, or find a job and collect a paycheck? Does a summer lifeguard job sound ideal to you?

Right now, there is a shortage of lifeguards across the country and it’s affecting about a third of the country’s public pools.  Many states are addressing lifeguard shortage by increasing pay rates. So why not take this opportunity to save earn some money, gain valuable work experience and have something to put on your resume for future jobs or school applications.

What’s causing the lifeguard shortage?

There are three main reasons. The first is that during the early stages of the pandemic, lifeguard certification classes were canceled, meaning new people weren’t being trained and current lifeguards were unable to renew their certification. Second, a lot of lifeguards found new, higher-paying jobs in retail or the hospitality industry when pools were closed, and decided not to return to their previous positions. Finally, in June 2020, former President Donald Trump banned foreign work visas like the J-1, saying it was a way to protect public health amid the pandemic. For the last two decades, many lifeguard positions in the United States have been filled by young people with J-1 visas, and Trump’s move sent “shockwaves through that area,” Bernard J. Fisher, director of health and safety for the American Lifeguard Association, told NPR,adding, “That was the straw in the camel’s back that broke everything down.”

Note: This information is based on the Red Cross lifeguard course for pools, the most common certification course offered. However, courses can vary from state to state and facility to facility depending on the organization offering training. While much of the information will be the same, check your local facilities for specific details.

Requirements and Qualifications to Become a Lifeguard

Before you dive into lifeguard training, you need to be sure you meet all the requirements to qualify as a lifeguard. Check off this list of lifeguard requirements before you start researching training courses.

  • Age: The U.S. Department of Labor sets the minimum age of employment at 14 years. Therefore, you should be at least 14 years old before you pursue lifeguard classes. The American Red Cross, which offers lifeguard training and certification, requires its students be at least 15 years old by the last day of training. So, you can expect you will need to be at least 15 years old to find a job as a lifeguard, but specific pools and beaches may have different age restrictions. For example, the YMCA requires students to be 16 years old by the end of training.
  • Physical stamina: Physical stamina is a vital beach and pool lifeguard qualification. Serving as a lifeguard means more than sitting at the edge of the pool. You will need to have the physical endurance to be on your feet for long periods. You will also need strong swimming skills in case you need to jump into the water in an emergency situation. Lifeguarding also entails a certain amount of pool maintenance, so you will need to be able to lift and carry heavy equipment during your shifts.
  • Adequate hearing and vision: Beaches and pools can become crowded, particularly during the summer. You will need to be able to see and hear what is going on in the water. Drowning is hardly ever apparent. You won’t hear loud yells or see a whole lot of splashing. Lifeguard training will prepare you for the subtle signs of drowning, but you will need strong enough vision and hearing to pick up on those signs and act in time.
  • Hand-eye coordination: Strong hand-eye coordination is vital for successfully handling emergency situations in the water. You may need to jump into the water with lifesaving equipment and swim to a person in distress.

Decide Which Lifeguard Certification You Want

Next,, you need to decide what type of environment you’ll be working in. Training to be a lifeguard at a beach or reservoir is different from the training to be a lifeguard at a pool, and you’ll need to take the correct course in order to be certified to work at each respective place.

Enroll in a Certification Course

Now that you know what kind of lifeguarding you want to get into, you need to enroll in a certification course. The American Red Cross is the most well known organization for this, but other organizations offer certifications as well. However, the American Red Cross certification is for two years, while others is just for one.

Depending on where you get certified and from what company, the course length can vary. Generally, it is between 15 and 30 hours. Some courses are even online! Cost of the courses can vary as well, but you’re looking at between $100 and $300 dollars, generally. 

To be certified and ready to work, you must pass three tests:

  • Basic Lifeguard Training
  • CPR/AED for the Professional Rescuer
  • First Aid

Most courses will include all three certifications as part of their test, but if not, you must get the certifications elsewhere.

Pass a certification Exam

At the end of your certification course, you will be required to pass an exam. This exam includes a swim portion in addition to the CPR/AED test and the First Aid test. But do not be afraid! The swim test is very straightforward, and with a little practice, you’ll have no trouble passing.

For a Typical Lifeguard Test:

Note: The following describes a typical test and may vary depending on your certification location.

You must be able to swim 300 yards without stopping according to the following guide:

  1. Freestyle (or front crawl) for 100 yards.
  2. Breaststroke for 100 yards.
  3. Either Freestyle or Breaststroke for 100 yards.

You must also be able to complete the brick test, or submerged object retrieval test, which consists of the following:

  • Start in the water without goggles.
  • Swim for about 20 yards to where a 10-pound brick or some other weight has been deposited.
  • Surface dive to retrieve the brick.
  • Swim back to where you began, keeping the weight above water.
  • Exit the pool without using the steps or ladder.
  • Lastly, you must be able to tread water for 2 minutes.

For a Waterfront Lifeguard Test:

Note: The following describes a typical test and may vary depending on your certification location.

You must be able to swim 550 yards without stopping according to the following guide:

  1. Freestyle (or front crawl) for 200 yards.
  2. Breaststroke for 200 yards.
  3. Either Freestyle or Breaststroke for 150 yards.

You must also be able to complete the brick test, which consists of the following:

  • Start in the water without goggles.
  • Swim for about 20 yards to where a 10-pound brick or some other weight has been deposited.
  • Surface dive to retrieve the brick.
  • Swim back to where you began, keeping the weight above water.
  • Exit the pool without using the steps or ladder.
  • Lastly, you must be able to tread water for 2 minutes.

For a Surf Lifeguard Test

Note: The following describes a typical test and may vary depending on your certification location.

You must perform a long-distance swim in the ocean or other surf-environment, generally 500 meters in 10 minutes. 

You must also be able to complete the brick test, which consists of the following:

  • Start in the water without goggles.
  • Swim to where a 10-pound brick or some other weight has been deposited.
  • Surface dive to retrieve this brick.
  • Swim back to where you began, keeping the weight above water.
  • Lastly, you will have to perform a timed short-distance and long-distance run on land. The short-distance run is likely around a quarter mile and the long-distance run could be a full mile.

Once you are certified for Ocean Lifeguarding, the training does not stop there. You will likely be required to participate in further training on the job, consisting of:

  • Long-distance runs.
  • Long-distance swims.
  • Paddling in a kayak.
  • Weight training.

You will also be expected to maintain your lifeguarding knowledge and skills including:

  • Practice rescues.
  • Patron surveillance.
  • Review of unsafe water conditions and rip tides.

If you’re up for the challenge, go for it!

Get a Job

Once you are certified, the hardest part is done. Now you need to find a job. Ask around at your local community centers and pools, or, if you are certified, seek out the local water parks. Using job hunting sites like Indeed.com may be useful as well. 

If you have surf certification, look for ocean breaches that have lifeguards posted and see how to get a job there. 

Lastly, remember that you are guarding lives, first and foremost. Your job is to ensure that everyone at the beach enjoys their time and remains safe. That’s not to say you can’t work on your tan while you work, but you must remain vigilant at all times. People depend on you, after all. 

If you think you have what it takes to be a lifeguard, go for it! Lifeguarding is a great summer job or a full-time career, very rewarding and comes with plenty of fresh air to enjoy. Just don’t slack off and you’ll be fine. 

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