The History of the Lifeguard

From popular surf spots like Sunset Beach to other bodies of water around the world, lifeguards play a vital role in ensuring water safety for surfers, swimmers, boaters, and other water enthusiasts.

Red swimsuit, tanned skin, and a wide-brimmed hat: Most people know the classic “lifeguard” image, but have you ever wondered how this vital profession has developed over time? The history of lifeguards goes back further than you may think, with the earliest forms of water rescue dating back centuries.  

In this blog, we delve into the rich history of lifeguarding, looking at its origins, evolution, and current training standards. 

The Origins of Lifesaving Services in the U.S.

The lifeguard profession we know today can be traced back to the 1700s, when shipwrecks still posed a significant threat. If a ship sank, “lifesavers” would be sent out to rescue passengers and mariners in need. These individuals would unite to form the United States Lifesaving Service—a non-profit organization of beach lifeguards and open water rescuers—and later go on to become the United States Coast Guard. 

From Ships to Sand: The Emergence of Beach Lifeguards

On a rescue mission: Lifeguards spring into action to protect and save lives along the coast each and every day.

Steam eventually replaced sails, and shipwrecks became less common. By the late 1800s, wrecks were so rare that lifeguards shifted their focus from boats to the beach. Swimming for recreation had begun to rise in popularity, and entrepreneurs jumped at the chance to capitalize on this new trend. Resorts popped up in various beach destinations, like Atlantic City, and attracted thousands of beachgoers from across the nation. Unfortunately, with this influx of ocean activity came a rise in drowning incidents. 

By the early 1900s, more than 9,000 humans drowned annually in the United States. Communities across the nation knew something needed to be done to combat the problem, so many began installing “lifelines” around beach swimming areas (later known as “drowning chains”). However, these lines proved to be insufficient. Communities began assigning police officers to conduct swimming rescues, which was also ineffective and pulled resources away from local law enforcement. 

Finally, between 1910 and 1920, numerous lifesaving organizations began to hire individuals to perform water rescues. In 1912, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) created the National Lifesaving Service. Two years later, the Life Saving Corps of the American Red Cross was formed, after which the first life saving station in Pablo Beach, Florida was established. The rest of the country quickly followed suit. On the West Coast, San Diego initiated its official lifeguard services in 1918 after 13 people drowned in a single day at Ocean Beach. 

The Evolution of Lifeguarding Skills & Training

In the early 1900s, municipalities taught volunteers how to operate lifesaving equipment (much of which is still used today) and sent them into communities to supervise swimming activities. Until organization’s like the YMCA began water rescue training, swimming rescues were initially seen as a last resort.

Around the middle of the century, the lifesaving tactics used today were beginning to emerge. In 1956, Peter Safar and James Elam invented mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, later combining it with chest compressions to create cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) — a core component of lifeguard training today. 

Lifeguard training and safety standards only improved from there. In 1964, California surf lifeguard agencies founded the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) to standardize ocean safety and rescue. A couple of decades later, the American Red Cross and YMCA expanded their training programs to include standardized training for beaches and pools.

Pool vs. Beach Lifeguarding

Watchful guardians: Lifeguards work tirelessly to ensure the safety of children and adults alike, whether they're already in the water or simply playing near the shoreline.

Pool and beach lifeguards are all responsible for swimmer safety. However, beach lifeguards are up against a large, often dangerous natural body of water, so they undergo a more rigorous training program. In addition to water rescue, first aid, and CPR, beach lifeguard training often includes weather monitoring, specialized water rescue methods, and even beach maintenance. 

How Can You Stay Safe?

Even when lifeguards are on duty, there are steps everyone can take to enjoy the water safely. If you have a beach vacation planned, stay informed about the water conditions throughout your stay, and avoid venturing out alone whenever possible. No matter where you take a swim, be it a pool or the Pacific, never consume alcohol before entering the water. 

Another essential component of waterside safety? Broad Spectrum sun protection. Browse our entire collection to find the perfect fit for your next day under the sun.