what is a beach lifeguard

Beach Lifeguards: A Big Responsibility (Requirements and Equipment)

(I may earn a small commission on the products mentioned in this post.)

Lifeguards have been part of America for a long time. Over 100 years ago, beach patrollers were essential to beach safety in New Jersey.

More recently (1964), the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) was created in Southern California to standardize beach safety procedures on public beaches. The American Red Cross (ARC), YMCA, and Ellis and Associates, together, have established standards for lifeguards that are universally adopted.

Both States and organizations have helped beaches across the country become more safe, however, most of the popular beaches in the U.S. are run by the State.  In this article we highlight some of the requirements put forth by California.

We encourage you to use this article to gain a general understanding of beach lifeguard responsibilities and requirements, then look at beach lifeguard requirements for your State.

Although it may appear to be a relaxing job at the beach, beach lifeguards that work on State beaches have the serious responsibility of oversight on the beach. This includes anticipating and responding to emergencies in the water and on the beach, communicating safety information, and maintaining order and cleanliness.

What Is A Beach Lifeguard about beach lifeguarding

A beach lifeguard can best be described as a highly trained beach manager, however the word “manager” vastly downplays their responsibility to ensure the safety of people at the beach.

Their knowledge must include health and safety, law, environment (tides, UV radiation, weather, currents), and they must be effective communicators.

The most obvious trait that beach lifeguards have is their physiques, which aren’t for the purpose of having a “beach bod”. Rather they must remain in tremendous shape to carry out their job duties.

Beach lifeguards are usually seen in lifeguard towers at State beaches across the U.S. They wear red bathing suits so they are easily recognizable.

They are often seen scanning beach crowds (no, not looking for attractive guys/gals) to make sure people are safe and behaving.

In recent decades, lifeguards have increased the use of lifeguard vehicles. These vehicles include four-wheelers (ATVs), open air Jeeps, and compact trucks. All of these vehicles help lifeguards move up and down the beach and response to emergencies.

The vehicles also make it easier to transport essential equipment (mentioned in the section below). They are usually a red or yellow color to catch the eye.

It’s not uncommon for beach lifeguard towers to make 100 rescues over a summer weekend – and that’s just from 1 tower in 2 days on a large beach!

Related: Beach Lifeguard Workout

What Do Lifeguards Do: Duties and Responsibilities

There are two main categories of beach lifeguard duties.

(1) Maintain oversight on the beach and in the water, including communicating safety information and reporting.

(2) Emergency response for people on the beach and in the water. Below is a list of example responsibilities broken down into the 2 categories.

Beach Oversight and Communication

  • Monitors beach and ocean activities to anticipate and prevent illegal activities (drinking, loud music).
  • Shares safety information such as unsafe areas on the beach (cliffs, rip tides).
  • Communicates with other lifeguards and beachgoers using radio, loudspeakers and safety flags.
  • Patrols the beach to maintain visual availability.
  • Assists with cleanliness on the beach
  • Supervises use of equipment
  • Creates daily reports on weather, tide, and other conditions at the beach

Emergency Response

  • Responds to swimmers in danger and anticipates their need of assistance
  • Responds to beachgoers in danger and anticipates their need of assistance
  • Responds to unruly groups or individuals
  • Conducts first aid response to injured persons and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
  • Communicates emergency to other lifeguards and/or emergency response.
  • Active, passive, and spinal victim rescue

You’ll notice the word “anticipation” is used often as a beach lifeguard responsibility.  Many people at the beach may be in danger without realizing it.

Thus beach lifeguards must be in great shape (swimming and running) so they can respond to rescues before the individual realizes they are in trouble.

In case an incident is unavoidable, they must be competent in lifesaving techniques such as CPR/AED and First Aid.

Related: Beach Items You Need

Lifeguard Equipment List: What Do I Need

A lifeguard will need specific equipment according to the beach location, available resources (money, storage) and the number of persons on the beach lifeguard team.

Equipment will include lifesaving and First Aid equipment, as well as basic beach and water equipment such as a swimsuit, fins, and boats. Below is a list of possible equipment: lifeguard job

  • First Aid Kit
  • AED Kit (defibrillator)
  • Spinal immobilization board
  • Airway adjuncts
  • Oxygen
  • Trauma bag
  • Whistle
  • Loudspeaker
  • Two-way radio
  • Rescue boat – other vehicles such as truck, bike
  • Rescue board
  • Rescue tube
  • Rope – cliff emergencies
  • Lifebuoy
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen

Lifeguard Certification Requirements

There are multiple ways to get lifeguard certification. The ARC and USLA offer opportunities for certification. The ARC offers classes to become certified and USLA allows lifeguard providers to use their curriculum and certify lifeguards according to open water standards.

It should be noted that these certifications won’t allow someone to qualify for work at a State beach. Rather, they are good preparation for getting experience and learning lifeguard rules, regulation, and expectations.

Each State will have their own requirements for working at their beach (example below).

To be a lifeguard at a California State Beach, you must meet the following:

  • 2 years of college (60 semester units at accredited university)
  • Valid California Drivers License
  • Physically sound (ability to run and swim for emergencies)
  • At least 18 years old
  • 6 months of lifeguard experience (other than swimming pools)
  • Complete the State Park Lifeguard Training Program
  • Background investigation
  • U.S. Citizen or Permanent Resident
  • 20/20 vision
  • No record of felony

The California State process is thorough and can be viewed as a legitimate career where professional lifeguards can make upwards of $60,000 per year. These positions are competitive.


There are also part time and seasonal positions available. It’s not mentioned in the general requirements but the following can be expected in the training process.

  • Basic police training
  • Title 22 First Aid for public safety personnel
  • 80 hour ocean training program
  • 1,000 meter ocean swim in 20 minutes
  • Written exam
  • First Aid and CPR/AED Certification

Lifeguard Communication: What Do Lifeguard Flags Mean At The Beach

While at the beach you should also be aware of the flags.  We’ve all seen flags at the beach, but few of us understand what each color represents.

The colors red, yellow, and green have similar meanings to our traffic lights.

Red Flag:

A red flag comes with a warning.  If you see this flag in the sand it means the ocean is dangerous and swimming should not take place.  It could be due to large waves, currents, and rip tides.  Interestingly, swimming may still be allowed though not recommended.

A red flag could also indicate poor water quality (high levels of bacteria). We often experience poor water quality after rains when municipal drains send water in the ocean.

In the U.S. you can check the report card for your area or beach.  Here is the Beachapedia report for 2017 to look at water quality according to beach area.

If you see 2 red flags or a flag with a white line through it, this means that swimming is not allowed. The ocean has a strange way about it – if you see red flags, search farther down the beach and you might see yellow or green flags.

Your family can also look at nearby beaches that may be perfectly safe.

Yellow Flag:

Yellow flags are very common to see at the beach and, similar to driving, the color for caution.  This means the ocean is ok so swim but conditions could be rough.  This includes potential for rocks or drop offs in water depths.

It could also mean caution for predators.  If you decide to swim in the ocean with a yellow flag, make sure to do-so near a lifeguard so they can keep an eye on your family.

When swimming in Southern California it common to see yellow flags on the beach even when the water looks great.  If you stumble upon a yellow flag, don’t worry the ocean is likely ok. Just be aware of your surroundings in the water.

Green Flag:

A green flag is great news. The ocean is safe to swim and shouldn’t have any serious currents or rip tides.  Less experienced swimmers should remain aware of waves the tide and should keep an eye on the shore in case there is need for assistance.

A green flag will provide your family confidence the ocean is safe, however, use caution with small children and watch them closely.

Blue/Purple Flags:

These flags are seen less frequently but are important none-the-less.  Blue and purple flags indicate danger from predators or jellyfish.  In other words, these flags are serious!

Beaches usually won’t close due to predators in the water but it means lifeguards have seen or reported jellyfish (possibly sharks) in the area.

If you see a blue or purple flag, enjoy your time on the sand, and use caution when entering the water. A visual inspection of the shore is a good indicator of jellyfish populations – usually there will be a few (or many) washed up on the beach.

Related: Best Natural Sunscreen for the Beach

Conclusion

U.S. lifeguards serve a significant role in protecting beachgoers every summer.  In fact, they work in more than just the summer season – in warmer climates a beach lifeguard can make the job a lucrative career.

In order to be a lifeguard individuals must have a strong ability to swim and run.  The requirements go much further than athletic performance including CPR, First Aid, and AED certification, a strong knowledge of beach law, the ability to read situations and anticipate danger, the ability to communicate safety information, as well as write reports and supervise others.

If you’re looking to be a beach lifeguard there are opportunities throughout the U.S. to work seasonally, part-time, or full time.  Each State has their own rules and regulations but most beach lifeguards must have prior experience working as a lifeguard.

The best way to observe beach lifeguards is to visit the beach and watch what they’re doing.  In the early morning, many beach lifeguards have training programs and offer activities for a Junior Lifeguard Program.  You can also keep an eye on the beach flags and watch lifeguard vehicles slowly move up and down the beach.

At Beach Life Expert we encourage you to get to the beach, enjoy the fresh ocean air, and live an active life outdoors.  Thanks for reading! We’ll leave you with another beach lifeguard video from Hawaii, enjoy!