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Behind the Thrills: How Lifeguards Keep Kids Safe at Water Parks

Behind the Thrills: How Lifeguards Keep Kids Safe at Water Parks

It takes a dedicated and well-trained crew of lifeguards to keep everyone safe at a water park. Here’s how they do it.

“My name is Timmy. You may see me throughout the park today and you may see lifeguards rescuing me. When you see lifeguards rescuing me, it means they’re training to do their job better every day, so please applaud my performance when you see these rescues taking place.”

Those are words you may have heard announced over the public-address system or posted on the walls at popular water parks across the country, and believe it or not, it’s a standard type of training for lifeguards.

Timmy is a mannequin that looks like a little boy and is used as a form of training that takes place at water parks. A supervisor throws the mannequin into the water, and it is up to the lifeguards on duty to rescue it within a matter of seconds, as though it were an actual child drowning. 

“If [the lifeguards] don’t respond in time, the guards are retrained,” says Thatcher Robertson, corporate water park director of Kalahari Resorts and Conventions in the Pocono Mountains region of Pennsylvania. “If it’s something that happens more than once, then we have to take a hard look at whether the guard needs to stay doing what they’re doing.”

Preventing ‘Deadly Sins’

Approximately 10 people in the U.S. die from unintentional drowning every day, and of this number, nearly two of them are children ages 14 and younger, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lifeguards, often teenagers themselves, are employed at swimming pools and beaches across the country to keep swimmers safe and help those who find themselves in trouble. Water parks face additional safety challenges, including very large crowds, children eager for thrills, and activities, such as fast-moving slides, that heighten the risks. This is why water parks insist on extra training and drills for their lifeguards, and many pay an extra fee to receive third-party audits.

At Great Wolf Lodge and Camelback Resort’s Camelbeach Mountain Waterpark—both also in the Pocono Mountains—the water parks receive third-party audits from Ellis & Associates Inc., an aquatic risk management firm dedicated to drowning prevention and accredited by International Aquatic Safety and Risk Management Consulting. Kalahari Resorts uses the American Red Cross for its audits.

Three or four times a year, these third-party auditors will arrive at the water parks unannounced and record the lifeguards with a video camera. The footage is reviewed and the auditors will tabulate scores for individual lifeguard performances, along with other tests, to calculate the overall facility performance score.

If a lifeguard fails an audit test, whether it is from an external auditor or from an internal test, she will be dismissed from her job and will be placed in a different department of the park or will be asked to leave.

“It’s something that we’d call a ‘deadly sin,’ if you will,” says Bill Colavito, general manager of Great Wolf Lodge. “We’re talking about an audit where you would potentially put somebody at risk, and we can’t stand for that.”

Becoming a Lifeguard

To become a lifeguard at a water park, one must be at least 16 years old and first take the lifeguard training program, which is part instructional and part skills training. The instructional portion takes place online, and the skills training involves approximately 30 hours at the facility to go over swimming and rescuing skills, CPR, and more. After passing the written and swimming exams, the lifeguard is certified and will be placed into his assigned section of the water park.

Whether stationed at the shallow kiddie pool or wave pool, all lifeguards have the same certifications and training. Lifeguards are required to participate in in-service training on a weekly basis to reinforce their swimming skills, and sit in pre-shift meetings to go over anything that needs to be discussed, mainly pertinent to water safety.

“That’s what really keeps lifeguards sharp,” says Wayne Franks, director of water park operations at Camelback Resort. “Knowing that they have [the] responsibility of not only the guests that are in the park [and] are swimming in the pools…there’s that opportunity that it could be catastrophic, [and] that trains for that awareness.”

Most water parks have between 100-200 certified lifeguards on staff, but the number who are on duty at any one time varies, depending on the size of the park. Though there can be a lot of lifeguards working at once, the most important factor is that they do not take their eyes off of the water. At Great Wolf Lodge, the director of aquatics sometimes sets down a glass of water during the interview process and asks the candidate to stare at it for five minutes straight.

“Sometimes it just gives people the perspective of how important it is no matter what,” Colavito says. “Even if there isn’t anybody in the water, you’re still watching water, and that’s how important the job is.”

Shared Responsibilities

When taking children to water parks, safety is not just the lifeguards’ responsibility—it, of course, starts with parents. The number-one tip that experts emphasized is to provide constant supervision to your children.

Franks advises parents to enroll children in swimming lessons to make sure they can keep themselves afloat while in the water. Franks and Robertson both suggested that kids should wear life jackets even if they are strong swimmers. Robertson also stresses that parents should not allow their children to go down waterslides if they do not meet the height requirements, no matter how tempting it may be to give in to kids’ entreaties to allow them to skirt the rules.

“Their kids may not be tall enough to ride that ride now, but they will be,” Robertson says. “There are reasons for the rules that are there.”

Main image: A lifeguard at Great Wolf Lodge measures a child to see which attractions would be safe for her at the water park.
Courtesy of Great Wolf Lodge


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Samantha Neudorf

Author: Samantha Neudorf is a former editor at NYMetroParents. See More

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