By definition, a rescue swimmer is a trained specialist who rescues, assesses, and renders medical aid to distressed people in the air, the sea, and on the land.

It’s a distinctive title for rescue professionals in the US military, and they are looked upon as essentially “the cream of the crop”.

A career as a Coast Guard rescue swimmer is challenging, to say the least.

Strong swimming skills alone cannot enable you to skillfully jump out of helicopters into oceans with choppy, frigid waters.

Related Article: 5 Best Jobs In The Coast Guard

As a whole, rescue swimmers are part of the US military Special Operations Community because of the nature of their job that includes difficult training, the risk of capture (during wartime), and high attrition rates.

For starters, the US Military has three kinds of rescue swimmers:

I. The Aviation Survival Technician Swimmer (Coast Guard)

The Aviation Survival Technicians (AST), also known as the Helicopter (Rescue Swimmer) Team are elite members of the US Coast Guard highly trained for extreme rescue missions.

coast guard rescue swimmer
One of the most elite jobs in the US military, Coast Guard rescue swimmer. Image: Defense.gov

These rescuers undergo extensive training enabling them to handle deadly scenarios such as downed aviators, hurricanes, sinking vessels, and high sea medical evacuations.

Since recruitment began in the mid-1980s, over 900 people have trained and passed to become ATSs.

Currently, there are about 350 active members in the Military Helicopter Rescue Team.

They operate in different kinds of maritime environments after undergoing a year-long grounding.

One of the most important roles of an aviation survival technician is inspecting, maintaining, troubleshooting, servicing, and repairing aircraft oxygen systems, cargo aerial delivery systems, and helicopter emergency flotations systems.

Others are air/ sea rescue kits, special-purpose protective clothing, and portable dewatering pumps.

II. The Air Rescue Swimmer AIRR (US Navy)

navy rescue swimmer
Image: AF.mil

The AIRR (Aviation Rescue Swimmers) is the Navy’s version of rescue swimmer, and is a tight-knight group with training to answer calls from the high seas when lives are at stake.

They work in treacherous conditions to provide humanitarian assistance, operational support, and relief/ recovery for rescue missions.

Some of their primary missions include:

  • Working as an SH-60 Helicopter crew member, coordinating with the pilot for the success of fleet missions.
  • Saving people aboard capsized or stranded vessels, pilots of downed aircraft, and mountain climbers/ hikers who are in danger.
  • Collaborating with other forces to rescue civilians in danger during a natural disaster such as a Tsunami.
  • Delivering supplies and aid during humanitarian operations to other countries
  • Transporting cargo and troops from/ to ships.

III. U.S Air Force Swimmers

air force pararescue swimmers
Image: AF.mil

The Air Force rescue swimming team, also known as pararescuemen (PJs), is a highly trained and specialized group, adapted to sea-based and land-based rescue operation.

Although pararescuemen have comprehensive rescue swimming skills, they sparsely put this expertise to work.

The training for Air Force rescuers is notoriously rigorous since the job entails Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) operations.

Usually, PJs train as paramedics and combatants for missions on the air, the land, and the sea.

air force pararescue vs coast guard rescue swimmer
Image: AF.mil

The Air Force rescue swimmers are most active during wartime whereby they work to rescue abandoned special-operations troops, downed pilots, and any other stranded military person.

Other than that, PJs perform rescue missions during natural disasters and assist other military branches in different missions, thanks to their versatility and high-quality training.

Now that you have an understanding of the differences between rescue swimmers, let’s dive in to the real purpose of this article: Coast Guard rescue swimmers.

Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Requirements and Qualifications

A Coast Guard rescue swimmer at work

The minimum requirements to join the Coast Guard are as follows:

  • Must be between 17 – 27 years of age for active duty, and 17 – 39 for reserve.
  • Have no more than 2 dependents
  • Pass the ASVAB (minimum score of 162)
  • Minimum of High school diploma or GED equivalent
  • Pass a background check
  • Pass a basic physical fitness test (more on this below)
  • Pass a personal evaluation, which examines your overall attitude, professionalism, honesty, and respect

These requirements are just to get in to the Coast Guard.

In order to qualify to train as a rescue swimmer, you must be in superior physical shape, have no chronic orthopedic problems, and “possess a high level of mental acuity and outstanding military bearing”.

In addition, you have to have a high degree of confidence in the water, as well as pass an aircrew candidate physical.

Here’s a more thorough explanation of the physical and mental requirements:

I. Physical Requirements

A Rescue Swimmer candidate should be in excellent physical shape and not older than 27 years or younger than 17 years.

The BMI standard for all trainees, regardless of gender or age, is 27.5 maximum and 19.0 minimum.

Related Article: Coast Guard Height And Weight Requirements

All applicants undergo a physical fitness program that edges out those who are not fully fit for the job.

Also, overall physical health is paramount and candidates should not have any chronic orthopedic problems.

II. Mental Requirements

Before joining the Coast Guard, trainees must pass the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) test, and have a high school diploma.

Additionally, The U.S Homeland Department subjects candidates to evaluations that consider a person’s professionalism, language proficiency, respect, honesty, work ethic, and attitude.

homeland security interview with coast guard rescue swimmer candidate
Image: Flickr.com

As part of the screening, all swimmer candidates undergo a background check and credit check.

Other than that, recruiters ensure that prospective trainees pass military entrance medical exam before joining the Coast Guard.

The height and weight requirements are as per the Navy Requirements and Qualifications Guidelines.

Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers Training and Career Path

The Coast Guard School is located in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and has a reputation for having a very high attrition rate.

Out of the 100- 75 trainees who join the Swimmer School every year, nearly 50% don’t make it to graduation.

In some years, the institution has recorded a drop-out rate of over 80%.

Coast Guard rescue swimmer school training

Once you make it through the screening stage, the first phase of training encompasses physical fitness.

There is a monthly regimen that includes a 200-yard buddy tow, a 25-yard underwater swim, and a 500-yard (or longer) 12-minute crawl swim.

Other monthly fitness exercises are push ups (50), chin-ups (5), sit-ups (50), and pull-ups (5).

During the physical training, instructors add even more pressure to challenge the trainees.

For example, during one evolution called the “Basket Test”, you’ll be required to jump from a tower, take control of a survivor, and get him or her into the rescue basket.

If the survivors head goes under water for more than 5 seconds, you will fail the evolution.

This is just one example of the myriad of curve balls that will be thrown your way during Coast Guard rescue swimmer training.

It ensures that graduates are adept to working in extreme conditions, which is vital for rescue missions.

Without mental tenacity, it becomes very difficult to successfully rescue people in dangerous situations.

Coast Guard Swimmer Class Work And Training

All Rescue Swimmer Trainees attend lessons for a 137-page operations manual that has eleven ways to handle survivor situations, seven ways of handling Air Force and Navy flyers, eight major water deployment procedures, and various backpacks/ parachute (military) detangling processes.

Coast Guard rescue swimmer trainee practices saving downed airman. Image: AF.mil

Additionally, candidates undergo a four-week course on emergency medical training.

The medical indoctrination takes place at Petaluma’s (California) Coast Guard EMT School.

Medical training offers swimmers’ basic pre-hospital life support skills, and includes things like:

  • Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)
  • Stabilizing a patient with a broken back
  • Examine patients vital signs
  • How to administer oxygen
  • Assessing trauma
  • Perform airway maintenance
  • Administer medication

A Rescue Swimmer candidate must also understand the operation of the specific aircraft he/ she will operate with.

What Happens After I Graduate Aviation Survival Technician School?

After graduation, the Rescue Swimmers get assigned to onshore duties in various U.S military command locations or to any sea helicopter command.

There are Coast Guard stations all over the US and it’s territories, and you can be assigned to any one of them depending on the needs of the Coast Guard.

coast guard sectors throughout the US

Advancements in training/ education depend on military needs and personnel performance.

Even so, there are a lot of promotion opportunities to the various ranks in the Coast Guard.

Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer FAQs

1. Is there a waiting list to become a Coast Guard rescue swimmer?

As far as we’re aware, there isn’t an official published list.  With that said, you have to be serving in the Coast Guard for a minimum of 4 – 6 months before you can attend AST school.

2. How many rescue swimmers are there in the Coast Guard?

It’s estimated that there are currently 150 active duty rescue swimmers serving in 2019.

3. Is it a dangerous job?

Yes, it is. Swimmers get trained to operate in extreme conditions and deadly environments.

Most missions are high-stake situations and things might go wrong quickly.

When everyone else is heading in to port because of a bad storm or hurricane, you’ll be heading out.

Simply put, rescue swimming is not for the faint of heart.

There have been numerous Coast Guard rescue swimmer deaths since their inception.

4. How much do they get paid?

The Coast Guard Rescue swimmer remuneration structure depends on posting location and professional advancement.

According to CareerBliss.com, a rescue swimmer can expect to earn $38,000 annually.

When compared to their Navy and Air Force brethren, they are actually the lowest paid rescue swimmers in the US Military.

5. Can females join?

Absolutely! Even so, women must meet similar performance, endurance, and physical standards as men during training to become fully-qualified Coast Guard Swimmers.

6. What’s life as rescue swimmer like?

Being a rescue swimmer requires dedication and sacrifice.

Most strong swimmers get a wide awakening after joining a Coast Guard team.

Oftentimes, rescuers are the first people on the scene and require a range of skills to complete a rescue mission successfully.

The job also comes with a lot of memory recall, extra studying, and academic demands.

The best part is that the compensation is decent and it is quite a noble job.

7. What’s the difference between a Coast Guard and Navy Rescue Swimmer?

There are many things that differentiate Navy and Coast Guard rescue swimmers.

For starters, the Coast Guard operates under the Homeland Security Department, while the Navy is under the Department of Defense.

Additionally, there are way more Navy rescue swimmers than there are Coast Guard rescue swimmers.

The obvious reason behind this is that the Navy’s overall size is way bigger.

Another big difference is, while they are the same rate, a Navy rescue swimmer does his job part time.

80% of a Coast Guard rescue swimmers job will involve rescuing people in distress, while Navy rescue swimmers will only do that about 10% of the time.

Career Opportunities after Retirement

A rescue swimmer who leaves or retires from the service has a myriad of opportunities as a private specialist.

The training Coast Guard swimmers undergo enables them to gain skills that are excellent for operation in various commercial industries.

Some of the jobs a former Rescue Swimmer can do as a civilian include:

  • Life Support Technician for Commercial Flights
  • Parachute Repair and Rigging
  • Emergency Medical Technician
  • Aircraft Mechanic
  • Supply Technician
  • Quality Assurance Technician


The rescue swimmer’ career is among the top in the list of most demanding jobs on earth because of the nature of operations.

Typically, it is the duty of a Coast Guard swimmer to access highly sensitive areas and rescue anyone in distress.

The compensation, admiration and skill-set one receives because of rescue swimming making this career a worthwhile endeavor.

It is without a doubt one of the best jobs you can have in Coast Guard, by far!