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How to Become a Lifeguard

Responsibilities, working hours, what to expect and qualifications needed

Career guides » How to Become a Lifeguard

What does a lifeguard do?

A lifeguard is sometimes also known as a recreation assistant or attendant. They supervise swimmers in swimming pools, oceans and open/still/non-tidal waters and ensure they remain safe and out of danger. They also respond to emergencies and carry out rescues.

There are three main types of lifeguards: pool lifeguard, open water lifeguard and beach lifeguard. Therefore, what a lifeguard does will depend on their specialist role and where they work. Most lifeguards will sit on a tall chair to get a good vantage point to watch over swimmers and others. Those working outdoors will use various equipment and vehicles to monitor and get around, e.g. beach buggies, trucks, boats, kayaks and paddle boards.

A lifeguard’s main aim is to monitor swimmers to prevent them from getting into trouble whilst in the water and respond to any accidents, injuries and incidents. They help people feel more confident in the water and save thousands of lives each year. They will carry out many tasks, including monitoring swimmers/water conditions, advising swimmers, ensuring safety rules are followed, rescuing swimmers in trouble, administering first aid, carrying out life-saving procedures, checking and maintaining equipment, etc. The role may also involve some administrative work, e.g. completing incident reports, ordering supplies and equipment and recording lost property.

Lifeguards can work with other lifeguards and different staff members (depending on their workplace), although during monitoring, there is little interaction due to lifeguard guidelines. They may also liaise with various external stakeholders, such as swimmers, customers, other members of the public, the emergency services, other rescue services, etc.

Lifeguards can work for different-sized companies, from small hotels and health clubs to large organisations with hundreds or thousands of employees, e.g. large leisure centre groups and holiday resorts. They tend to be employed rather than self-employed or freelance. However, there are opportunities to work for recruitment agencies on a temporary or contract basis.

Responsibilities

A lifeguard’s responsibilities will depend on where they work, e.g. swimming pools, beaches or open/still/non-tidal waters, such as lakes and reservoirs.

Some examples of common duties for lifeguards can include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Giving swimmers advice on the safety rules and how to stay safe in the water.
  • Observing swimmers vigilantly and ensuring they comply with the safety rules.
  • Rescuing any swimmers in trouble or distress.
  • Administering first aid.
  • Performing life-saving techniques.
  • Contacting the emergency services where required.
  • Checking and maintaining safety equipment and reporting any issues to supervisors/managers.
  • Handling, storing and recording lost property.
  • Attending staff meetings.

 

Pool lifeguards may also be responsible for the following:

  • Setting up pool equipment.
  • Advising swimmers on how to use any pool equipment, e.g. diving boards and slides.
  • Monitoring the water temperature and chemicals in the pool.
  • Cleaning the pool and surrounding areas.
  • Carrying out swimming lessons.

 

Beach lifeguards may also be responsible for the following:

  • Helping others on the beach and being a point of contact.
  • Setting up safety flags on the beach.
  • Monitoring sea and weather conditions and any hazards on the beach.
  • Advising swimmers of any dangerous sea conditions.
  • Patrolling the beach on foot or in beach buggies or trucks.
  • Using boats and rescue boards to rescue people in the sea.

 

Open water lifeguards may also be responsible for the following:

  • Observing from the shoreside or using various equipment, such as a kayak, paddle or board.
  • Helping with risk assessments.
  • Assisting with setting up and shutting down venues.

Working hours

A lifeguard can expect to work 35–40 hours a week. However, they can do more or fewer hours depending on where they work and their employment type, e.g. permanent, temporary, contract, full-time and part-time.

Being a lifeguard is not a 9–5 job, and they often have to work unsociable hours on a rota, e.g. evenings, weekends and bank holidays.

The role may involve local or national travel if a lifeguard works on different types of events. There may also be some overseas work opportunities.

What to expect

There are many positives to being a lifeguard, especially if an individual loves swimming and helping people. Protecting people in the water and rescuing anyone who gets into trouble is extremely rewarding. Lifeguards can save lives, so they can go home at the end of the working day knowing their role makes a difference.

Lifeguards will meet people from all backgrounds and ages, which is ideal for individuals who enjoy being around others. If they work on a beach or around open water, they can also be outdoors for long periods.

Depending on where they work, lifeguards can get benefits, such as free gym and pool memberships, access to spa facilities, social events, food and drink, etc. They usually have to wear a uniform. However, it is much less formal than other jobs. They may wear shorts and T-shirts (and jackets) or wetsuits.

Even though there are positives to being a lifeguard, there are challenges and cons, e.g.:

  • Swimming – it goes without saying that individuals will need to be strong swimmers to be lifeguards and demonstrate this when doing lifeguard qualifications and even when applying for jobs.
  • Mental demands – being in a public-facing role can sometimes be difficult and stressful, especially when people are not adhering to safety rules or doing dangerous things in and around the water. It also requires a high level of concentration, and there can also be long periods of sitting on a tall chair monitoring swimmers, which can be tiring. Lifeguards will need to be able to deal with illnesses and injuries, so it is not for the squeamish. There may also be instances where they cannot save people, which can be emotionally demanding.
  • Physical demands – being a lifeguard is also physically demanding. Therefore, they will need a high level of physical fitness. They must be prepared to respond quickly to emergencies, which may involve running and swimming some distances and manual handling casualties in and out of the water. Beach, open water and outdoor pool lifeguards can be outside in all weather, and indoor pool environments can be hot and humid.
  • Cleaning – lifeguards who work in and around swimming pools will usually have to clean as part of their role. Again, this is not for the squeamish, as some areas can be left dirty by users.
  • Risks – there can be a risk of injury and even death when rescuing people from the water, especially from the sea and open water. There is also a risk of slipping around swimming pools and manual handling injuries.
  • Low pay and competition – the salaries for lifeguards can be low compared to other careers. The competition for roles can also be fierce. Therefore, lifeguards must stand out from the crowd and work hard to be successful.

 

Every career choice has pros and cons, and individuals must know what to expect before deciding whether it is a suitable career. The role is physically and mentally demanding. There is a risk of injury and even death, especially when rescuing people from the sea and open water, and the role is not for the squeamish. However, there are many positives too, and individuals who become lifeguards love helping people to stay safe and well whilst they have fun.

When considering whether to be a lifeguard, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the right personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.

Personal qualities needed to be a lifeguard

Some of the personal qualities a lifeguard requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • A passion for swimming, customer service and people’s safety.
  • An interest in leisure, fitness and health.
  • Good physical fitness and strength to run, swim and help people from the water.
  • Good eyesight and hearing.
  • Confident, assertive, courageous, determined, patient, focused and motivated.
  • Caring, empathetic, social, tactful, helpful and friendly.
  • Knowledge of first aid and life-saving procedures.
  • Knowledge of public safety and security.
  • Strong swimming skills.
  • Communication skills, especially verbal.
  • Interpersonal skills.
  • Customer service skills.
  • Observational skills.
  • Being thorough and having excellent attention to detail.
  • The ability to accept criticism.
  • The ability to work well with others and alone using own initiative.
  • The ability to react quickly in an emergency.
  • The ability to concentrate for long periods.
  • The ability to correct swimmers’ behaviour where necessary.
  • The ability to work under pressure and remain calm in stressful situations.
  • The ability to be flexible and adapt to change.
  • The ability to use IT and software packages.

Qualifications

There are many different routes to becoming a lifeguard. Individuals could complete a lifeguard qualification, apply for an apprenticeship or apply directly to companies. They could also do work experience to help them enter the role.

Lifeguard qualifications

Undertaking a lifeguard qualification is essential to becoming a lifeguard.

The qualifications needed will depend on whether an individual wants to be a pool, beach or open water lifeguard, for example:

  • Pool lifeguard
    – The National Pool Lifeguard Qualification (NPLQ) is the most widely recognised in the UK and Ireland. Further information can be found here.
    – There is also the STA Level 2 Award in Pool Lifeguarding, offered by many training companies.
    – There is an International Lifeguarding Qualification if an individual wants to be a lifeguard overseas. However, some countries may accept the NPLQ.
  • Beach lifeguard
    – If an individual wants to become a beach lifeguard, they will need a separate qualification, such as the National Vocational Beach Lifeguard Qualification (NVBLQ). Further information can be found here.
  • Open water lifeguard
    – If an individual wants to become an open water lifeguard, they will need a separate qualification, such as the Open Water Lifeguard Qualification (OWL). Further information can be found here.
    – Individuals holding a current National Pool Lifeguard Qualification (NPLQ) can attend a one-day OWL course and assessment.

 

Individuals must be 16 years old or over at the time of assessment. They must also meet certain prerequisites and pass assessments, which are detailed on the Royal Life Saving Society UK (RLSS UK) website.

The cost of these qualifications can vary but are usually between £250 and £300. Individuals will also need to renew their qualifications as certificates only remain valid for two years. There will be a cost to renew, and individuals must complete at least 20 hours of continued professional development (CPD).

Individuals are not guaranteed success with qualifications. However, it will demonstrate to employers and companies that they are keen on the job and may give individuals a competitive edge.

Apprenticeships

There are lifeguard and leisure assistant apprenticeships available. The entry requirements for each apprenticeship will depend on individual employers. However, being able to swim competently is essential, and employers may ask individuals to have some GCSEs, including English and maths. Some companies may offer to train individuals and pay for them to do lifeguard qualifications.

Opportunities are found on Government’s Apprenticeships, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, the Royal Life Saving Society UK (RLSS UK) and Indeed.

Applying directly

Some organisations offer trainee or internship roles where they will train individuals on the job and may pay for them to do lifeguard qualifications. Some local clubs and charities, such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), may also offer training if individuals volunteer with them.

It can be a good route for those struggling to pay for courses, as they can be expensive. Individuals will still need to be able to swim and demonstrate a passion for helping people. Most job sites advertise trainee roles and internships.

Training to be a lifeguard

Work experience

Firstly, individuals need to ensure they can swim competently and have a good physical fitness level before applying for a job as a lifeguard. It is recommended they join a local gym with a swimming pool or a swimming team to build their swimming skills and overall fitness.

To pass a pool lifeguard qualification, individuals must be able to (RLSS UK):

  • Jump/dive into deep water.
  • Swim 50 metres for <60 seconds.
  • Swim 100 metres continuously on front and back in deep water.
  • Tread water for 30 seconds.
  • Surface dive to the bottom of the pool.
  • Climb out unaided without ladders/steps and where the pool design allows.

 

Individuals could attend their local public swimming facilities and ask if they could speak to lifeguards to get an idea of the role and what it entails. They could also apply for jobs at leisure centres and facilities with swimming pools to gain experience and work with customers before doing their lifeguard qualifications.

There may be volunteer opportunities where individuals could help charities, such as the RNLI, St John Ambulance and the British Red Cross, which can help them learn vital first aid and life-saving skills. Swimming charities, events, community schemes or groups and life-saving clubs may offer volunteering opportunities. There is information on volunteering and local opportunities on Do-IT, NCVO, Volunteering Matters and Indeed.

Lifeguard after completing emergency response training course

Training courses

Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help individuals enter the profession, enhance their employability and give them a competitive edge. Many colleges and accredited private training providers can provide relevant training courses.

In addition to the lifeguard qualifications, some examples of other courses that may be useful for lifeguards include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Manual handling.
  • Work at height (i.e. accessing tall chairs).
  • Risk assessment.
  • Emergency response.
  • First aid.
  • Hazardous substances (COSHH) (if handling pool chemicals).
  • Legionella (i.e. pools and spas).
  • Work equipment (PUWER) and personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Work-related stress.
  • Work-related violence.
  • COVID-19 awareness.
  • Safeguarding (children and vulnerable adults).
  • Customer service skills.
  • Complaints handling.
  • Equality and diversity.
  • LGBTQ+ awareness.
  • Disability awareness.

 

There are also online lifeguard theory courses that individuals may find helpful as an introduction to the role.

Institutes, charities, associations and local swimming clubs, such as the Royal Life Saving Society UK (RLSS UK), Surf Life Saving GB, the Swimming Teachers’ Association (STA), and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), can also advise on reputable training courses. Some also provide memberships, events and support to help individuals become lifeguards and give those already in the profession the means to continue their professional development.

The type of training required will depend on who an individual works for and their specialisms. It is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the training needed for roles. Jobs can be found on websites such as GOV.UK find a job service, Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, leisurejobs.com and Careers in Aquatics. Also, look at recruitment agencies, charities and event water safety specialists.

More relevant training and competence (skills, experience and knowledge) will open up more opportunities. Refresher training is also advisable as it is a legal requirement and keeps an individual’s knowledge and skills up to date.

Criminal records checks

Lifeguards usually need to undergo a criminal record check, as they will work around children and vulnerable adults.

The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:

Driving

Some lifeguards will need a full driving licence (preferably with no points) if they work on beaches and at open water events. Some roles will provide a company vehicle, but others may require individuals to use their own, which must have business insurance.

Individuals may need additional training and skills for different vehicles, e.g. buggies and boats.

Lifeguard working at hotel

Where do lifeguards work?

Lifeguards can work for many employers, including private companies, public bodies, charities, not-for-profit organisations and recruitment agencies. Various contracts may be available, such as permanent, temporary, fixed-term, zero hours, seasonal, part-time and full-time.

Pool lifeguards will spend some time in tall chairs by pools observing swimmers.

They may work in the following workplaces (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Leisure centres and facilities.
  • Outdoor swimming pools.
  • Therapeutic swimming facilities.
  • Swim academies.
  • Health clubs and spas.
  • Aqua (water) parks.
  • Holiday parks and camps.
  • Theme parks and resorts.
  • University and college sports facilities.
  • School swimming pool facilities.
  • Hotels.
  • Cruise ships.
  • Hospitals.
  • Residential care facilities.

 

Beach lifeguards will work on beaches across the UK. There may also be opportunities to work as a lifeguard on international beaches. Beach lifeguards can work from towers, tall chairs, boats and boards. They may patrol beaches on foot or by vehicle/buggy.

Open water lifeguards can work in a variety of settings, such as:

  • Lakes.
  • Reservoirs.
  • Lochs.
  • Public bathing sites.
  • Outdoor pools.

 

They will work from the shoreside (sometimes on a tall chair) or on various equipment, such as a kayak, paddle or rescue board.

Lifeguards can also work for event companies on temporary events, such as:

  • Festivals and shows.
  • Swimming competitions.
  • Sporting events, e.g. triathlons.
  • Fundraising events.
  • Film and TV sets.
  • Corporate or private parties.

 

Working on events can mean extensive national travel and overnight stays. There may be options to do seasonal work overseas.

Experienced lifeguard

How much do lifeguards earn?

What a lifeguard earns will depend on their role, specialisms, location, qualifications, experience, who they work for and whether they are employed or work for an agency.

According to Check-a-Salary (these figures are a guide only):

  • Lifeguards, on average, earn a minimum of £17,961.00.
  • The average lifeguard salary in the UK is £20,222.21.
  • Lifeguards, on average, earn a maximum of £23,252.00.

 

Those starting a lifeguarding career are likely to earn less, i.e. approximately £15,000 (data from various sites).

As an apprentice, the salary will depend on an individual’s age and how long they have been in their apprenticeship. Apprentices must earn at least the current National Minimum Wage (NMW). Some employers will pay more than this. However, it will depend on the organisation and role on offer.

Lifeguards specialising in competition events

Types of lifeguarding to specialise in

We have covered the three main types of lifeguards throughout the article, i.e. pool, beach and open water. There are also options to specialise in specific swimming environments and events, such as leisure centres, cruise ships, water parks, competitions, etc. Individuals can also choose to work as international lifeguards.

Various lifeguarding roles will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. All lifeguards must be strong swimmers, have a good fitness level and have a passion for helping people. They will need to be able to focus for long periods and react quickly in an emergency. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on an organisation’s requirements and the type of role an individual wants. Further qualifications and experience are necessary for specialised jobs, e.g. beach lifeguarding.

Lifeguards not competently carrying out their roles can cost lives. It can result in them not spotting people in trouble, improper rescue and incorrect first aid and life-saving techniques. All of which can put swimmers and others at serious risk of drowning and other injuries. Therefore, whatever the type of role, lifeguards must have the necessary competence to carry out the work professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency, i.e. asking for help when something is beyond their expertise.

Lifeguard swimming club

Professional bodies

Guidelines, standards, laws, equipment and technologies are regularly changing. Therefore, lifeguards must keep abreast with the latest developments and changes to carry out their roles effectively, safely and correctly. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives lifeguards the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes, understand their responsibilities, be legally compliant and progress in their careers. It is also a mandatory requirement when renewing lifeguard qualifications.

Joining institutes, charities, associations or local swimming clubs, such as the Royal Life Saving Society UK (RLSS UK), Surf Life Saving GB, the Swimming Teachers’ Association (STA), the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and others, can help individuals enhance their skills and overall career. They offer different levels of membership, CPD, support, access to industry contacts and networking events.

There is an opportunity for career progression for lifeguards. With more qualifications and experience, they could move from being a pool lifeguard to a beach lifeguard or work at various events. They may decide to become a swimming teacher or coach. Alternatively, they may become a senior lifeguard who trains and manages a team of lifeguards or they could assess lifeguard qualifications.

Knowledge, skills and experience from being a lifeguard can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, they could do further qualifications and become a leisure centre manager or work in other areas of emergency service, rescue, first aid or life-saving.

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