Lifeguards are the heroes of summer. Why is it so hard to find good ones?

By Jason Koch, Editor
Posted 5/31/23


It’s the quintessential summer job for American teens, sitting around a swimming pool packed with families enjoying a warm day.

But being a lifeguard is about far more …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Lifeguards are the heroes of summer. Why is it so hard to find good ones?



It’s the quintessential summer job for American teens, sitting around a swimming pool packed with families enjoying a warm day.

But being a lifeguard is about far more than watching the pool and getting a nice tan.

“They’re first responders,” says Lisa Kramer, aquatics director for the city of Warrenton.

Every lifeguard at the Warrenton Aquatic Center is certified following American Red Cross guidelines. That means that not only are lifeguards strong swimmers, they’re also capable of providing first aid until EMS arrives.

The training to become a lifeguard is, to say the least, intense – and many of those hoping to become a lifeguard don’t make it through to the end.

The aquatic center just completed a lifeguard training class. Eleven people started out. Only five were left May 19, the second day of the three-day training class.

And that’s a significant issue for running the pool, Kramer said. The pool is required to have lifeguards, but if none are available the pool can’t open

“Just because these five guards were certified on Saturday, they still have to – as well as all of my staff – they still have to be able to go down and pick up that brick in the 12-foot area two times in a row before we’ll let them guard outside,” she said. “Which is why sometimes we don’t open the outdoor pool because I don’t have enough staff.”

What it takes to be a lifeguard

The brick test, where a lifeguard candidate must swim to the bottom of the pool and retrieve a 5-pound brick, is one of the endurance tests required for certification. The test proves the candidate can reach the bottom of the pool and return to the surface without using their hands, an important skill if they’re ever called upon to rescue a drowning swimmer.

It’s not an easy test.

Miakoda Rhodes, a 16-year-old Warrenton High School student, struggled with that part of the training, and it almost disqualified her from becoming a lifeguard.

“That’s the one I felt like I was most in my head about but I feel like today I should do better because I’ve been practicing,” she said.

During the May 19 training, she struggled again. Kramer and class instructor Cole McBride both offered her tips and encouragement and, fortunately, she was able to successfully retrieve the brick.

“I felt relieved, I struggled getting down there so I thought I’d never be able to get down there,” Rhodes said. “That was something I struggled with a lot before but tonight Lisa gave me some tips and it was really helpful and I got through it.”

The brick test is one of three endurance tests each lifeguard candidate must pass in order to continue with the training. They must also swim 12 lengths of the pool without stopping and with their face in the pool, and tread water for two minutes using only their legs.

PHOTO GALLERY: Check out more pictures from lifeguard training

It’s these swimming tests that caused six people to either quit or be disqualified from the most recent training.

“Unfortunately, I have found that the swimming skills of the teens out here, their technique’s not as good as the lifeguard candidates I had when I worked at the Y,” Kramer said. “And I think that's because a lot of people swim in lakes and their pools at home and haven’t had any formal swim lessons or didn’t continue with formal swim lessons.”

There can also be a mental block.

“I think that some of the kids that haven’t continued on with us, it’s just because of a confidence level within the water and not having the ability to swim for a longer period of time,” says Tamara Wurth, one of the newly-certified lifeguards at the pool.

Wurth was one of the five students in the most recent class to be certified as a lifeguard. She had been a lifeguard in the past, too.

Her experience helped get her through the training, but her classmates were experiencing the tests for the first time. And the training doesn’t get any easier once they’ve proven their swimming endurance.

Practicing for emergencies

During the May 19 training, Cole McBride, the lifeguard instructor and aquatics manager and supervisor at the pool, showed the five remaining candidates exactly what they’d have to do if they ever had to rescue an unconscious swimmer.

“Today we’re moving on to some more advanced rescues,” he said.

McBride, who himself has been a lifeguard for a little more than a year-and-a-half, demonstrated the techniques each lifeguard would have to use in the case of a real emergency, and then had each practice.

Some of the extrications required one candidate to be in the water and one outside the pool holding on to the “backboard,” a long wooden board that each “victim” – in this case, another lifeguard candidate – needed to be placed on so they could safely be taken out of the water.

Many of the candidates said this was one of their hardest tests.

“The board’s here and you’ve gotta sort of angle it and it’s awkward. And you’ve gotta get the tube out from under them,” 15-year-old Cooper Stone said. 

“That was interesting to learn,” 16-year-old Jacob Nagel said.

“I was mainly worried that I couldn’t see something that I was doing wrong,” Rhodes said. “I kept asking Cole if I was doing stuff wrong. He kept saying I was doing alright. So that took the weight off my shoulders.”

McBride said it’s not unusual for trainees to lack confidence when learning these important techniques.

“There’s just times where they go ‘I think I messed that up,’” he said. “I have to be reassuring because they didn’t mess it up, they just don't think they did it that well on the first try, they don’t expect it.”

Hard to find lifeguards

Between the endurance tests and learning emergency rescues, it’s hard to find enough lifeguards.

Nationally, more than 100,000 swimming pools were either open sporadically or closed entirely last summer because of a lifeguard shortage. This year could be “as bad as last year, or worse,” the American Lifeguard Association’s B.J. Fisher told

Lifeguard certification only lasts for two years, and a big part of the problem is that many lifeguards allowed theirs to lapse during the pandemic.

“So just like restaurant workers, we’ve lost our core people to other things,” Kramer said.

She said the Warrenton pool was fortunate last summer that they had just enough people – but only just.

“People were working more hours than they really wanted to, so burnout was a big thing last summer,” Kramer said.

She’s hoping that doesn’t happen this year.

“I’m hoping this year I will have enough staff that won’t happen, provided I have more people who want to become lifeguards in the next couple of weeks.”

The American Red Cross recommends that pools have one lifeguard on duty for every twenty people. Kramer says that, come June 5 when the pool opens every day from noon to 6 p.m., she wants eight lifeguards on duty from noon to 4 p.m. and then six or seven for the remainder of the day.

In Warrenton, Kramer has her lifeguards on duty for an hour, rotating positions every 30 minutes before they’re given a 30 minute break. Part of a shift requires them to stand in the water near the turtle slide, watching so that the little kids and small children aren’t falling in the water with their face down.

“They’re right there to grab them” if that happens, Kramer said.

But it’s a stark reminder of just how serious the job can get, and another part of the reason why a lot of people look for a different summer job.

“You are the first and most important line of defense between someone enjoying their Saturday at the pool or resenting their day in the hospital,” McBride said. “It’s hard for me even to understand as a 15 year old how terrifying that might be, being told if you do this wrong, if you drop the board here, if you don’t communicate with your partner, that might be that person's life, it might cost you their life. That scares a lot of people.”

But it’s also the reason some of the candidates wanted to be lifeguards.

“I feel like over the course of watching the Red Cross videos I genuinely like being a person who saves lives,” Rhodes said.

“I don’t want to just sit at Dairy Queen and hit a deep fryer button,” Stone said.

Heroes, not babysitters

It’s easy for those enjoying the pool to forget that lifeguards aren’t just there to limit the amount of fun they can have in the water.

“Patrons coming here don’t really think about the lifeguards other than that’s the person who whistles at me when I run,” McBride said. “They don’t really think of that outer perspective of ‘that’s someone who is trained to keep me safe, to respond if god forbid anything terrible happens to me.’ That is a hero in that sense.”

But because lifeguards have to watch everyone in the pool, they can’t give individual attention to a single swimmer – especially a young child. That’s where parents come in, Kramer says.

“My lifeguards are risk managers,” she says. “They are trying to prevent incidents and accidents from happening and parents need to be the ones who can see what their child is doing much quicker than a lifeguard.”

The pool is fortunate that it hasn’t had a serious incident. Kramer attributes that to the pool rules that require children 6 and younger to always be an arms length away from an adult and that children 14 and younger must be accompanied by an adult.

Still, that doesn’t mean the lifeguards never have to jump in and help save someone. Kramer said that on May 20, a little boy was in the 4-foot deep section of the pool and struggling to stay afloat. 

“My lifeguard had to jump in and get him,” she said. And that’s a big deal.

“We make a big deal about it and they’re. They saved someone’s life, or save them from having something worse happen to them.”

And while that rescue didn’t result in a serious life-saving event, it still shows the important role each lifeguard has.

“I think that being a lifeguard helps you grow so much as a person and just gives you a lot of perspective on things that you otherwise maybe wouldn’t spend so much time thinking about,” McBride said.

It’s that perspective that helps keep the lifeguards focused on their role as lifesavers.

Nathanial Kutcsh, 16, has been a lifeguard for just over a year, he said. He loves the brick test and does it often.

“It’s just refreshing,” he said. “And it’s practice – just in case.”

warrenton, lifeguard, pool, train, swim