During high school, I worked as a lifeguard at my local public swimming pool. Our goal was to keep the pool safe and make sure that any struggling swimmers were helped as quickly as possible. In total, there were 25 guards working at the pool in a given summer. Only 10 worked each shift - one for each guard chair plus a “deck” guard and one in the office. We rotated between chairs every twenty minutes in an order that allowed us to vary the pace of work (the guard chairs in the deep and and the kid section were the most difficult, while the slides and the zero-depth zones were some of the easiest. The last ten minutes of every hour was “adult swim” time, meaning the guards were on break.
Each shift, we were under the supervision of one manager (usually an older teenager who had been promoted after working at the pool for several years) and one of two head managers. On a day-to-day basis, we guarded the pool while the managers did busy work in the office. Once a week, however, we were required to attend one hour of in-service training in order to maintain our guard skills.
A month before the pool opened each summer, we spent several hours a week completing training. The training consisted of CPR and AED certification, teamwork exercises, drills on the rules of the pool, and in-water training. We went through “scenarios” of every possible accident that could happen at the pool, from drowning to choking to bee stings. The weekend before the pool opened (usually around memorial day), we went through rigorous skill tests. All 25 guards were split into three teams. One at a time, teams would take their positions in the guard chairs while the other lifeguards pretended to be pool-goers, purposely breaking rules, running, and splashing to distract us. The head manager would secretly instruct one guard to pretend to drown (this person would be the “GID” - Guest In Distress. It was a sort of euphemism for the one pretending). That person would swim normally in the pool for about five minutes, then go in front of one of the lifeguard chairs and start pretending.
Then, the lifeguard who was closest to the GID had to activate the EAP (emergency action plan) by giving the whistle three long blows. Next, all the other guards would hear this whistle and blow their own whistles to get everyone out of the pool. Strong verbal communication was necessary here, as guards couldn’t leave their chairs to help with the rescue until all swimmers were out of their zone (each guard was in charge of his or her own zone and had to “scan” it repeatedly in 8-second repeats to ensure the safety of swimmers. Two zones overlapped so that someone was almost always checking every area of the pool).
Once everyone was out of the pool, the other lifeguards could join in the rescue. By this time, the “primary guard” (the one who first activated the EAP) was probably out of the water with the GID in tow. The other guards needed to collectively call 911, grab the oxygen tank and defibrillator, and help the primary guard carry out water rescue. As soon as the primary guard and the GID were out of the water, another guard would take over to check the GID’s pulse and lead the team in CPR.
The structure of each lifeguard team was an all-channel network. There was no telling who the primary guard might be if a scenario were to arise. We all had to communicate quickly and effectively (through whistles, commands, and collectively counting chest compressions during CPR) to make sure rescues went smoothly.
The pool also functioned as a basic hierarchy in that lifeguards reported to managers and head managers, and the head managers effectively reported to auditors. Auditors were insurance representatives who stopped by the pool without notice at least once a month. They dressed like regular pool guests and hid cameras strategically under towels and in bags. They videotaped each lifeguard “scanning” the pool to make sure they were following strict standards. Once the auditor finished recording everyone, he or she announced his/her presence and it was time to begin a series of rescue scenarios. The auditor would tell the head manager which scenario to go through, and the guards were videotaped while completing each rescue. If steps were followed incorrectly or if the rescue was not completed successfully, we risked failing the test. If a pool failed twice then they could be shut down by the insurance company.
The features of high-functioning teams were, for the most part, all exhibited on our lifeguard teams. We shaped purpose in response to demand; we had to practice and perform rescue scenarios together on a daily basis to prove to the auditors and managers that we could keep the pool safe. This common purpose was translated into specific and measurable goals: each guard had to scan his or her entire zone in eight seconds, conscious GIDs had to be removed from the pool within two minutes of blowing the whistle, and unconscious GIDs had to be removed in just one minute. The teams were of manageable size - ten guards at the pool for each given shift and 25 guards in all. The one feature we were lacking in was the “mix of expertise.” Since Lifeguarding was a minimum-wage job designed for teenagers, no one really had expertise. We all learned the same skills during the first month of training. More experienced guards tended to be the experts in difficult rescue scenarios, but we were all aware of the same information.
What we excelled in, however, was a commitment to strong relationships and team accountability. It was essential that every guard communicated openly and efficiently with the others. If we were not actively listening and watching the pool and fellow guards, we would miss a literal life-or-death opportunity. We held ourselves collectively accountable by completing CPR as a team and talking through our actions out loud (for example, the guard in charge of the defibrillator would repeat the voice commands of the machine, saying “Safe to touch the patient” or “Shock delivered. Step away from the patient”). Everyone would count the CPR compressions and breaths together, and if one person was not counting, one of the other guards would yell “count!”
Our structured rescues which focused on strong communication definitely made sure that guards were held accountable for rescue performance. It also reminded us that we are a team, and the job cannot be done unless everyone works together. To be a good teammate meant following the rules, speaking up, and acting quickly in case of a dangerous situation.