Very few people would associate the Department of the Treasury with lifesaving. Yet it was this Cabinet department that established the Gold and Silver Lifesaving Medals.
Created by an act of Congress in 1874 as Lifesaving Medals First and Second Class and later ensconced in United States Code (Title 14 14 § 500), these two decorations predate the establishment of the modern-day Coast Guard by more than forty years. The awards were established during a period of rapid expansion by the United States Revenue Cutter Service, which was administered by the Department of the Treasury (and thus the medal’s provenance). Four years after Congress established the awards as part of a nationwide push to add life-saving stations along the East Coast and Texas, these stations were organized into a separate agency within the Treasury Department called the Life-Saving Service.
The eligibility criteria have been tweaked over the decades. Today, the Gold Lifesaving Medal is awarded to anyone who rescues or attempts to rescue another person from drowning, shipwreck, or other dangers or hazards associated with water. Such rescue efforts must either take place in U.S. water (or in waters that are under the jurisdiction of the U.S.), or one of the parties involved must a U.S. citizen or aboard a vessel or aircraft owned or operated by U.S. citizens. To qualify for the Gold rather than the Silver medal, the person performing the rescue must do at the risk of his or her own life and demonstrate extreme, heroic daring.
Being a member of the Coast Guard or one of the other branches of the Armed Forces of the United States is not a requirement to receive the medal, but many of the people who received the medal for the first fifty years of its existence were Sailors or Soldiers because they tended to be in locations where mishaps requiring lifesaving efforts are more common. But this became far less common with the establishment of the Soldier’s Medal in 1926 and the Navy and Marine Corps Medal in 1942, which were intended to reward acts of valor and heroism not associated with combat.