Lifeguards in the beginning

Starting in the 1800's, bathing, now known as swimming, became a popular recreational activity in the United States. Entrepreneurs saw a niche and built resorts in places like Atlantic City and New Jersey, to attract humans from inland metropolitan areas to escape the summer heat. As water activity increased, so did the incidence of drowning. By the early 1900s as many as 9,000 humans drowned each year in the United States (American Red Cross, 1994).

Initially these eager businessmen were installing lifelines. However, lifelines proved inadequate because struggling swimmers were not able to grasp ahold of them once they entered into what would become known as the "Drowning Chain". Duke Kahanamoku, one of Hawaii's first original watermen, introduced the rescue board between 1910 and 1915, and Captain Harry Sheffield of South Africa is credited with developing the first rescue float (American Red Cross, 1994). Some communities assigned police officers to perform water rescues, but this diverted resources from law enforcement. Eventually, municipalities began to hire men and women trained specifically for water rescue. They were deemed "lifeguards."

Lifeguards not being presence at all public bathing areas led the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) to develop a volunteer National Lifesaving Service in 1912. In 1914, Commodore Wilbert E. Longfellow established the American Red Cross Lifesaving, which trained swimmers throughout the United States in lifesaving and resuscitation, then organized them into volunteer corps, and encouraged them to accept responsibility for supervision of bathing activities in their communities.

In the begining the lifeguard training programs primarily emphasized personal water safety: how to prevent drownings and protect oneself in emergencies. Nonswimming rescue methods, such as throwing a rope or a floating object to the human in the water, were encouraged. Lifeguards considered swimming rescues a last resort due to the hazard presented by a panicked swimmer in the water.

However, soon swimming rescues were unavoidable for professional beach lifeguards in the United States. Special tools, such as the landline and the dory, were developed to assist in swimming rescues. Over time, improved lifesaving devices were created by beach lifeguards in the United States. These include the rescue buoy, the rescue tube, and the rescue board which are commonly used around the world at beaches, pools, and water parks. Today, many beach lifeguards use powerboats and personal watercraft to assist them in reaching off-shore swimmers in distress quickly and use scuba equipment for deep water rescues.

In 1964, the organization now known as the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) was founded by members of several California surf lifeguard agencies originally to enhance lifesaving efforts and drowning prevention, to standardize beach lifeguard practices and educate the public about water safety along with improving professionalism among beach lifeguard organizations around the country. Membership has since expanded to include any employee of an ocean, bay, lake, river or other open water rescue service (Brewster, 2001). In 1980, the World Waterpark Association was formed to address needs in aquatic amusement parks. Following this, Ellis and Associates, through the National Pool and Waterpark Lifeguard Training program, established specialized water-park lifesaving standards and certification programs. In 1983 and 1986, respectively, the American Red Cross and YMCA expanded their training programs to provide nationally standardized instruction for lifeguards at both swimming pools and beaches. Local employers continue to provide lifeguard training at most surf beaches. The American Red Cross, USLA and Ellis and Associates establish standards which are universally adopted for lifeguard training.

Lifeguards have always provided Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and general first aid training are standard requirements for most lifeguards. In addition, many lifeguards are now both trained and certified to use advanced lifesaving tools such as the external defibrillator and portable oxygen. In some communities, lifeguards have taken on broader public safety responsibilities, such as advanced life support, coastal cliff rescue, and law enforcement.

While performing patron surveillance, usually from an elevated stand or a water-level standing or sitting position, lifeguards watch for unusual activities on the part of swimmers to recognize struggling swimmers, drowning swimmers, and swimmers with sudden medical conditions such as stroke, heart attack, asthma, diabetes, or seizures. While performing patron surveillance, Lifeguards try to prevent drowning or other injury and death by looking for swimmers in these categories and conditions. 1: Swimmers who are inactive in the water, submerged or otherwise (Passive drowning victim). When a lifeguard sees this kind of swimmer he performs an emergency rescue. 2: Swimmers who are taking in water while attempting to stay at the surface (Active drowning victim). Lifeguards look for swimmers in this condition by looking for arms flailing vertically, with the body vertical and perpendicular to the water, for the curious reason, that when swimmers begin to take in water, they stop kicking with their feet. Lifeguards perform an emergency rescue to assist this kind of swimmer. 3: Swimmers who have become tired and are having trouble swimming (Distressed swimmer) and may or may not be calling out for help. Lifeguards usually swim out and help these swimmers to the side. They may or may not require additional assistance. 4: Normal swimmers (Healthy swimmers). Problems may occur at any time, so a lifeguard must be in good physical and mental condition in order to pull someone from the water and possibly perform rescue breathing, CPR, or First Aid.

Major aquatic safety organizations in the United States have continually emphasized prevention through the "Drowning Chain" rather than rescue as the primary method to reduce drownings. Public safety education and onsite supervision by lifeguards have helped keep drowning rates low for 43 years, and have significantly reduced the number of drownings in the United States. Since 1960, both beach attendance and rescues by lifeguards have risen steadily, although the total number of reported drownings on lifeguarded beaches remained relatively stable with fewer than 106 cases each year (USLA, 2000). In fact, from 1986 through 1999, USLA reported that in California, while beach attendance has increased, so has the amount of lifeguard education (See Figure 1 in Appendix) (USLA 2000). Although rescue activity fluctuated, the number of drownings is down.

Estimates indicate that today, United States lifeguards rescue more than an estimated 100,000 humans from drowning annually. USLA data show a rescue-to-drowning ratio in the 1960s of one drowning for every 2,004 rescues at beaches with on-duty lifeguards. In the 1990s, however, the ratio improved to one drowning for every 4,832 rescues at lifeguarded beaches. In addition, for every rescue, an effective lifeguard makes scores of preventive actions, such as warning an individual away from a dangerous area and suggesting that poor swimmers stay in shallow water. There is no doubt that trained, professional lifeguards have had a positive effect on drowning prevention in the United States. While the number of Americans participating in water recreation has grown tremendously since the late 1800s and the popularity of aquatic activities has increased, the annual incidence of drowning in the United States has declined from about 6,300 persons in 1981 to about 4,000 persons in 1998 (National Center for Health Statistics, 2000). Nevertheless, despite the advances in rescue techniques and the decline in drowning rates in the United States, drowning remains a leading cause of unintentional injury death, especially among children and youth. If the incidence of drowning is to be reduced further, greater attention to prevention, including the staffing and training of lifeguards, is essential.

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