Technical Corner

Ontario’s Lifeguards – Caught in the “Perfect Storm”

May 31, 2022

A perfect storm is described as a particularly bad or critical state of affairs, arising from a number of negative and unpredictable factors.

The last two-years have created such an environment for the aquatic industry.


As resorts in the U.S. gained popularity in the early 1900’s it included a surge in recreational water activities that resulted in an increase in drownings. The American Red Cross estimated that in the early twentieth century around 9000 humans drowned each year. To help reduce drownings and resorts installed lifelines but were of limited help because swimmers were unable to hold onto them. After lifelines, came rescue boards. Some communities decided to assign police officers to rescue drowning people, but this used significant law enforcement resources. Eventually, local governments began to hire people that were explicitly trained for water rescue which created the term “Lifeguard.” In 1912, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) developed a National Lifesaving Service. Soon after, in 1914, the American Red Cross Lifesaving was established. It is estimated that lifeguards rescue more than roughly 100,000 people from drowning annually.

Part of the pandemic legacy is a shortage of lifeguards that is predicted to impact water recreational activities and safety for the next few years. Avoiding a surge in drownings will be an issue that all stakeholders will be focused on.

While keeping aquatic facilities open will be a facility managers priority. Under Ontario Regulation 565, having a lifeguard in “A” Class pools is a legal obligation.

A, B, and C-Class Pools

Ontario’s aquatic facilities are governed by the Health Protection and Promotion Act R.R.O. 1990, REG. 565 which sets out lifeguard responsibilities. 

The following classes of public pools are established:

Class “A” pool, being a public pool to which the general public is admitted or that is, i. operated in conjunction with or as part of a program of an educational, instructional, physical fitness or athletic institution or association, that is supported in whole or in part by public funds or public subscription, or ii. operated on the premises of a recreational camp, for use by campers and their visitors and camp personnel.

Class “B” pool, being a public pool that is, i. operated on the premises of an apartment building that contains six or more dwelling units or suites or a mobile home park, for the use of the occupants and their visitors, ii. operated as a facility to serve a community of six or more single-family private residences, for the use of residents and their visitors, iii. operated on the premises of a hotel for the use of its guests and their visitors, iv. operated on the premises of a campground for the use of its tenants and their visitors, v. operated in conjunction with, A. a club for the use of its members and their visitors, or B. a condominium, co-operative or community property that contains six or more dwelling units or suites for the use of the owners or members and their visitors, vi. operated in conjunction with a childcare centre, a day camp or an establishment or facility for the care or treatment of persons who have special needs, for the use of those persons and their visitors, or vii. neither a Class A pool, nor exempt from the provisions of this Regulation. O. Reg. 494/17, s. 2.

The class of Class "C" facility is established, being any of the following:

  • A public wading pool.
  • A public spray pad or public splash pad.
  • A water slide receiving basin that serves solely as a receiving basin for persons at the bottom of a water slide. O. Reg. 141/18, s. 2.

Lifeguard Skills and Responsibilities

To look at a lifeguard, most people would think “what a great job – I could do that”. The great job statement is accurate, however, the “I could do that” portion of the observation is a lot more difficult than most would realize. Lifeguards are trained in swimming and CPR/AED first aid, certified in water rescue using a variety of aids and equipment depending on requirements of their operation. In some areas, lifeguards are part of the facilities emergency services system to incidents and may function as the primary EMS provider throughout the building. National Lifeguard is Canada's only nationally recognized lifeguard certification program. National Lifeguard is a legal certificate for lifeguarding throughout the country and is recognized by the province of Ontario for lifeguarding public swimming pools. National Lifeguard certification is available in four options: Pool, Waterpark, Waterfront, and Surf. The National Lifeguard Award Guide provides complete details for National Lifeguard Instructors and candidates. National Lifeguard is recognized as the waterfront supervisory certification for Ontario Recreational Camp Regulation 503/17.

A lifeguard's primary duties usually include:

  • Enforce rules to prevent problems/injuries
  • Maintain concentrated observation of the duty area and its users in to anticipate problems
  • Supervise the use of other equipment when allocated to that duty (such as water slides or any other activities taking place)
  • Effect rescues and initiate other emergency action as necessary
  • Give immediate first aid in the event of injury to a bather or other incident
  • Communicate with bathers and other users to fulfill the above tasks
  • Help clean areas around pool or beach to ensure the safety of patrons

Lifeguards may have other secondary duties such as cleaning, filing paperwork, checking a swimming pool's chlorine and phenol levels, or acting as a general information point.

What Created The Lifeguard Crisis Perfect Storm

1. The Pandemic

As the world tried to adjust to the challenges of COVID-19 many traditional activities were paused. Aquatic facilities were no different as many facilities lacked proper design for social distancing and inadequate ventilation. Two things occurred, unemployed lifeguards found other work and did not return to the facility once they reopened and second, the “pool” of lifeguard candidates dried up as there were no swimmers attending classes to strengthen their swimming skills and be encouraged to consider lifeguarding as employment. As indicated in the skills and responsibilities portion of the resource becoming a lifeguard requires commitment at many levels to obtain certification and there is not a fast track to success. Filling this gap can only be accomplished in time.

2. Canadian Red Cross Winds Down Their Role in Lifeguard Certification

The Canadian Red Cross announced in January of 2022 that it was winding down its swim and lifeguard programming to direct more attention to surging humanitarian demands in other areas – such as disaster and pandemic response, opioid harm reduction and caregiving for seniors. The exception will be in First Nations communities where the training will continue as part of the Red Cross Indigenous Peoples Framework. Red Cross encouraged its water safety training partners to transition to the swim and lifeguarding programs of the Lifesaving Society Canada. For the Lifesaving Society, the arrangement is expected to double participation in their swimming, lifesaving, lifeguard, and leadership training programs that already see over a million participants each year.

3. A Shift in Focus

One ORFA member shared that in their experience teaching part time in a community college recreation and leisure services program, that the students are looking to work at senior or long-term care homes and very few are focused on municipal recreation. In the past, the majority were working towards a career in programming or pools, and many were lifeguards.

What ORFA Members Are Doing to Meet the Lifeguard Shortage

Recreation professionals have always adapted to every challenge they faced. Here are two examples of what ORFA members are doing to try and fill the gap.

  • We are currently exploring a working relationship with our local school boards and aligning with their Specialist High Skills Major program which sees credits being offered for attending leadership programs which will also provide an employment opportunity. We have much work to complete before we get our pilot program launched but I wanted to share our early attempt to help connect recreation as a career as well as our immediate need for more aquatic staff.
  • We are in the midst of a comprehensive review of our Lifeguard Program (development, recruitment, and retention) with Human Resources. In the meantime, we have just processed a significant wage increase for all staff that work as lifeguards/instructors and we are headed to Council at start of June to advise them of reduced operating hours for this summer at all of our community pools, outdoor pools, and beaches due to the staffing shortage.

What ORFA is Doing to Assist Our Members

The ORFA is focused on raising awareness of the issue and how it can impact warm weather operations. The ORFA is exploring how we might better promote employment in our industry as career opportunities rather than first or seasonal employment. We ask our members to keep us informed of their challenges and how they are addressing them. Together we can find solutions.

Aquatic Staffing Challenges are Placing Pool Operations at Risk - ORFA’s Technical Director speaks with Amanda Nadeau from Timmins, Tiffany Vis from Thunder Bay and April McNamara from Parry Sound on how the Pandemic and loss of Canadian Red Cross aquatic training programs are impacting their ability to provide service. There has been a 2-year in service recertification pool gap and a loss of trained lifeguards that are going to limit aquatic programs and services across the province and beyond. We invite you to take a listen and add to the conversation.

Comments and/or Questions may be directed to Terry Piche, CRFP, CIT and Technical Director, Ontario Recreation Facilities Association

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