Presented by by Michael Swain, ARM, SCLA, Sr. Loss Control Specialist
By Diane Tyrrell
The use of lifeguards in the primary supervision of watercraft activities, along with the term “Watercraft Lifeguard”, is a prevalent practice at camps and organized youth programs. While these practices may be entrenched, it’s time to critically re-think the practices in your program - noting that the inherent problem first and foremost is that there is no such thing as a “Watercraft Lifeguard” certification … And the reality is that, with few exceptions, lifeguard certification by itself is completely irrelevant in the supervision of watercraft activities.
Currently in the US training marketplace, the majority of lifeguard certification courses focus on skills specific to swimming activities only, and most do NOT include any instruction in (1) watercraft operation and/or operation of rescue craft (2) watercraft rescue, or (3) any skills needed to safely supervise watercraft activities, such as activity management, hazard recognition, or accident prevention strategies.
While the use of lifeguards in watercraft activity supervision may be well intended, it’s critical to understand that the skills and knowledge required to supervise activities and execute rescue in a watercraft emergency are very different than those required to rescue an individual who is swimming. At the end of the day, unless that lifeguard ALSO has competent operating ability, solid boat control skills (or competency when using motorized watercraft for rescue) and the ability to execute watercraft rescue in a quick and effective manner in an emergency, they may be totally ineffective.
Further, lifeguards not trained specifically in watercraft rescue skills can actually become an additional hazard in an emergency situation, and can endanger the lives of the participants, as well as their own. For example, lifeguards without competent craft control may not arrive to the victim in a timely manner, may hit victims in the water, or may capsize their own craft in the rescue attempt.
In other words, expecting someone to have any boating knowledge or ability to supervise or rescue watercraft activities based solely on their lifeguard certification is akin to asking a mechanic to take out a gall bladder – the skills and knowledge simply don’t translate. Just because your staff can swim doesn’t automatically mean they know how to rescue a capsized kayak ... One has nothing whatsoever to do with the other.
A critical safety factor is to ensure that those supervising watercraft activities are well trained. Nothing takes the place of supervision by qualified individuals.
Ideally, those supervising watercraft activities should, at minimum, have:
Ideally, the recommended best practice is to ensure that watercraft activities are supervised by an adult who holds an Instructor level certification from a nationally recognized boating organization, specific to the type(s) of craft, and bodies of water to be used.
Still want to use lifeguards?
Be ready to commit to providing additional training. In order to use someone certified as a lifeguard in the primary supervision of watercraft activities, they should be additionally trained AND be able to demonstrate proficiency in:
All of which should be specific to the type(s) of craft, and bodies of water to be used.
Program operators should also require skills verification of those who are instructing and supervising watercraft activities. Skills verification helps ensure that lifeguards (and others) supervising watercraft activities have demonstrated skills in water rescue and emergency procedures, have the ability and knowledge to conduct activities, as well as the physical ability to perform the skills required.
Note that like most sports, “watercraft” is not a skill that one learns and masters to the level of being able to supervise or effectively execute rescue in a “learn-to-blank” course. The risk issues around using lifeguards and/or inexperienced operators in the supervision of watercraft activities are far greater than “just” demonstrating ability to execute rescue skills in a staged setting. Again, ideally, those supervising activities should be experienced - specifically in the type(s) of watercraft and on the type(s) of water used in the program. If for no other reason than an experienced individual will generally have better ability to execute rescue in a quick and efficient manner than a novice.
Certainly, it is reasonable to split the tasks of staff, assigning those with appropriate watercraft skills to roles of supervision and rescue, and assigning lifeguards who do not have additional specific watercraft training/ability to roles such as responding to medical emergencies near the water, participant supervision on land, etc. Further, as/if applicable, they may meet requirements for staff with certification/training in CPR/AED and First Aid to be present.
Because your camp/organization “has-always-done-it-this-way” with regards to hiring lifeguards for watercraft activities is not a reason to continue the practice. The key is to be thoughtful in staffing decisions to ensure that safety while on-and around-the water is priority one, and that those supervising watercraft activities have the knowledge and skills to be diligent in protecting participants against risk of injury.
Please note that the above are suggested minimum qualifications for those supervising activities. Operators should evaluate the supervision needs of their program specific to the facilities, body of water, boats used, activities conducted, and clientele served. Additionally, there may be local, state, or federal laws and regulations which dictate how activities must be conducted and supervised. Those supervising watercraft activities should be familiar with the standards and regulations applicable to the program, facility, and body of water, and conduct activities in compliance.
Diane Tyrrell, CCD is the CEO of Frog Pond Aquatics and has over 30 years-experience in aquatics risk management, working with camps, municipalities, universities, youth organizations, insurance companies, and legal professionals. Diane is the author of the book 101 Games & Activities for Canoes & Kayaks, and has contributed content to the American Red Cross Small Craft Safety and Lifeguard Management training curriculum, and the book Camp Waterfront Management. email@example.com