For more than 100 years, the American Red Cross has been training lifeguards and teaching people to swim through its swimming and water safety program.
Over the years, Red Cross Water Safety InstructorTM authorizations have been issued to nearly a million and a half trained and qualified persons who, in conjunction with aquatic training providers, have taught courses enabling the Red Cross to issue millions of certificates in swimming and lifesaving to individuals successfully completing its courses.
More than 14 million Red Cross certified lifeguards have worked at pools, waterparks and waterfronts across the nation. Due to advances in technology, today, portions of Lifeguarding and Water Safety Instructor courses have online simulation learning components and the free Red Cross Swim app has tips and kid-friendly activities on how to stay safe in and around the water.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
At the beginning of the 20th century, the number of people dying from drowning was mounting and had the potential to become a national crisis. Boating or ferry accidents often resulted in drowning deaths. Life preservers and lifeboats were rare, so drowning numbers were high. Children were largely unsupervised in this era, and a good number fell off docks and drowned. Few families had leisure time or the opportunity for water sports, and most people had no idea how to swim.
In 1904 in New York, a sidewheel paddle boat, The General Slocum, was carrying more than 1,300 people on a church outing up the East River near Manhattan when it caught fire. It burned quickly, causing massive panic on board and pitching old and young people into the water. More than 1,000 people died in the disaster.
This distressed a young newspaper reporter from Rhode Island, Wilbert E. Longfellow, who realized the nation faced a growing problem and introduced new water safety initiatives. Longfellow saw the need for a nationwide program of swimming and lifesaving training and engaged in a one-man crusade to see this occur.
In 1914, he enlisted the participation of the Red Cross to ensure the success of his aim, "the waterproofing of America." On February 1, 1914, Longfellow began the Red Cross Water Safety program and established the Red Cross Lifesaving Corps.
Soon after, the first lifesaving station in Pablo Beach, Florida, was established and quickly followed by others. The program grew, and Longfellow traveled around the country as the lone field representative teaching police officers, Boy Scouts and YMCA groups, as well as visiting colleges and universities. As public demand for swimming and lifesaving instruction spread, the toll of lives lost through drowning receded.
By the time the country entered World War I, the groundwork for the program was in place, and the Red Cross Lifesaving Corps moved into army camps and naval stations. The setting was different, but the challenge was the same — to teach servicemen to swim and men who were already good swimmers to save lives. In 1922, the Red Cross added national aquatic schools for training and qualifying water safety and first aid instructors. Further developments by the onset of World War II included a new kind of swimming, called functional or combat swimming, for the protection and efficiency of the armed forces. Functional swimming was in full use throughout the country in the months following Pearl Harbor, and it was used extensively in the United States and overseas all through the conflict.
Water safety consciousness gradually became a part of American life as the program extended to hundreds of Red Cross chapters and every part of the nation.
During the next 33 years, Longfellow worked with devotion and enthusiasm in the nationwide water safety program of the Red Cross. He saw the nation's drowning rate cut in half and witnessed a tremendous upsurge in the popularity of swimming, boating and other water activities, to the point where an estimated 80 million Americans were participating in some form of aquatic recreation.
The Red Cross wanted his message to live on and later they created Longfellow’s WHALE tales (Water Habits Are Learned Early) to stress the importance of children learning water safety. In memory of Longfellow (some called him their “amiable whale”), a blue whale became the symbol of the program.
After more than 100 years, the American Red Cross aquatics program continues to reach millions of Americans through its innovative water safety resources. The Red Cross launched an Aquatics Centennial Campaign on May 20, 2014 with the goal of reducing drownings in 50 communities where the drowning rate is high or there are a large number of drownings. The goal is to teach people of all ages to be competent in the water and to know how to prevent, recognize and respond to aquatic emergencies. Developing qualified lifeguards and swim instructors in these communities is also a priority for long-term sustainability.
The Red Cross and its training providers teach more than 2 million people a year in swimming. The campaign has helped increase our impact by providing more than 100,000 sets of swim lessons so far to children and adults who would likely not otherwise get this lifesaving training. It is still going strong.
Part of the vision of the Red Cross is to ensure our communities are ready and prepared for crises, and that there are always trained individuals available to use their Red Cross skills to save lives in an emergency. Red Cross Training Services works tirelessly to see that this vision is fulfilled.
This story is part of a special historical series marking the 140th anniversary of the American Red Cross. Visit redcross.org/RedCross140 to learn more.