So You Want to Become a Lifeguard?

An instructor from the training academy tells what it’s going to take.

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    Stefan Slater

From hardcore surfers to casual beach-goers, Los Angeles County lifeguards are responsible for ensuring the safety of all those who enjoy the local sand and surf. Faced with the daunting task of patrolling our county’s 72 miles of coastline, these intrepid men and women handle a wide range of medical, social and oceanic challenges on a daily basis. 

Their job isn’t easy, which explains why the training to become a lifeguard is so very demanding. But let’s say you’re up for the challenge—you truly want to stand up on that tower and keep our county’s beaches safe. What do you do to become an LA County lifeguard? 

We talked with Matt Rhodes, an ocean lifeguard specialist. He works as a paramedic and as the paramedic training coordinator for the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Ocean Lifeguard Division. He also serves as an instructor at the county’s Lifeguard Training Academy. Here’s a short “crash-course.”

The Process: There are a number of requirements that must be met before applying—and all are listed online. You must be at least 18 years old, have a high school diploma or GED certificate and a valid California driver’s license. Before participating in the official swim exam, a potential candidate must have a swim certificate signed by an aquatic professional that notes that you can swim 1,000 meters continuously. 

Toward the end of the summer, the county hosts a swim exam for potential candidates. Rhodes notes that they’ll have 200 to 300 candidates who apply to participate in the ocean swim; this year only 65 of the roughly 200 participants advanced to the next hiring stage. 

The swim candidates have to swim 1,000 meters, and the top finishers move on to the interview process. If that is successful, candidates then have to pass a background check and a physical exam. If you pass all stages, you may be invited to attend the academy. 

The Training Academy is a minimum 100-hour course that’s taught on consecutive weekends, 10 to 12 hours a day. Potential candidates will learn basic first aid, CPR, how to respond to medical and trauma emergencies, basic ocean knowledge, effecting rescues, negotiating different marine environments like piers and jetties, and so on.

Successful Candidates: Rhodes notes that most successful candidates have a swimming background. “You’ll hear a common quote: ‘We train swimmers or water polo players or surfers to be good lifeguards.’ It would be difficult to train someone who doesn’t have some background in the ocean or at least aquatic sports.” 

Training Academy: “It’s very demanding,” says Rhodes, so be prepared to learn a great deal of information in a short time frame. He adds that repetition is absolutely critical when it comes to being properly prepared for a career as a lifeguard. “The way we train people is by doing it over and over and over again. It gets so redundant that when they face something for the first time, it’s muscle memory.”  

Mentality: “You need someone who is okay with an emergency setting,” says Rhodes. “A lot of people aren’t.” He also notes that confidence, especially concerning one’s training and overall abilities, is important. 

“We have a lot of 18- to 19-year-old kids who might struggle with confidence and asserting themselves. We tell them to walk with a purpose, stand tall and have a commanding presence, dictate a scene. This is your office, your work place—be an expert.”

The Public: Aside from ensuring the safety of all those on the beach, a lifeguard is also constantly interacting with the public in a positive fashion. Yes, actual rescuing is one form of positive interaction, but oftentimes being a lifeguard can be rather tedious. 

There will be slow days when the beaches aren’t crowded, and it’s up to a lifeguard to “get out of the tower, talk to the public, stay alert and stay active.” Discipline, respect and an innate desire to help and educate others about the ocean are often just as important as being able to swim quickly during heavy swells.

Final Tip: Rhodes notes that if you want to become a lifeguard, it’s important to stay in shape, spend time in the ocean and strengthen your medical skills (EMT classes aren’t a bad idea). “Keep yourself in tip-top shape, strengthen your medical skills and gain any ocean knowledge you can—all of it helps.”

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