How and why I became a qualified lifeguard

The CPR mannequin. This boy took a lot of rescuing during the course, hence all the mouth wipes

The CPR mannequin. This boy took a lot of rescuing during the course, hence all the mouth wipes

Thanks to Aquaterra I am now a fully qualified lifeguard. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for several years now, but never got round to. Like most kids learning to swim in the 1970s, swimming lessons were spent jumping into water in your pyjamas which you then had to take off (swimming trunks underneath of course) and blow up to make a float.

I don’t really know why we did it – after all if you found yourself drowning trying to blow up a piece of denim might prove a little difficult. But it seemed to make sense at the time. There were four main stages of the Lifesaving course: bronze, silver, gold and honours. And then if you were really keen you could do your Bronze Medallion – a sort of NPLQ Lite (National Pool Lifeguard qualification) for the over 14s.

While the early badges were mainly about saving your own life by blowing up various items of nightwear and treading water a lot, with the later badges you learned to tow people who were in trouble to safety.

It is this experience of towing – albeit from 25 years ago – which stood me in good stead – as I lined up on the side of a North London pool with a bunch of mostly teenage boys and girls, most of whom wanted to get the NPLQ so they could make some money to pay for University. My reason? Partly personal because it’s something I’ve always meant to do, but also because for my son to swim out of regular school hours at his school pool there needs to be a qualified lifeguard – ie. hopefully me. Statistics show that drowning is still one of the biggest causes of death in children and that shockingly one in four children leave Primary School unable to swim a length.

If your only experience of lifeguards is seeing Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff running along the beach in Baywatch, the reality of lifeguarding  is very different. The training I undertook was actually very tough, especially learning all the different tows you need to know in order to deal with different situations – for example choosing a tow depending on the size of the casualty and how much they are struggling. Then there are the defensive blocks you may need to employ if the person you are rescuing is panicking (we were were warned that they will try to drown you so you either have to push them away with a Torpedo buoy or put them under the water temporarily and then put them into a position where they can be towed).


The Torpedo Buoy: The lifeguard’s favourite friend, it has become the essential aid for making rescues

Vice squad

Most important of all is the dreaded ‘vice grip’ – a position where you have to hold someone’s skull firmly between your hands at the same time as towing them closely through the water as gently as possible to the side of the pool. It’s the one move that all of us were a bit scared about it because it’s so important to get right if someone has suffered a potential spinal injury, say from falling off a diving board. Get it wrong and you could leave someone paralysed from the neck downwards which isn’t something you really want on your conscience.

Learning CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) is one of the cornerstones of lifeguarding and most of the week’s training was spent giving rescue breaths and chest presses to various lifeless dummies of different sizes – adult, child and baby. As I said earlier, drowning  is still a large cause of death especially for children so CPR is an important skill to learn in order to try to get the heart re-started. Thankfully most pools now also have defibrillators (defibs for short) which are particularly successfully at kick starting the heart without the need for CPR.

So what have I done since passing my lifeguard qualification a couple of weeks ago? Well I am determined not to learn a skill without putting it into practice so I have been doing some part time lifeguarding at the Archway Leisure Centre in North London over the last couple of weeks.  And while the reality of being an actual lifeguard hasn’t quite matched up to the training yet with the exception of the staff training sessions, I’m sure one day I will be able to put my newly learned skills  into action.

Until that day comes though it looks like I’ll have to be content with telling people off for running along poolside and swimming in the wrong lane as well as cleaning down the sides of the pool, even the toilets. It’s not always a glamorous job, it seems, but who knows one day I may just save your life!

To find out more about becoming a lifeguard visit the Royal Lifesaving Society’s website. My course was booked through Aquaterra which operates leisure centres on behalf of local authorities in London and Somerset.