What Your Lifeguard May Not Want You to Know

Posted: March 15, 2013 in Swim
Tags: , , ,

Disclaimer:  I realize that this post has the potential to peeve off quite a few people.  I do believe that there are good, qualified and more than capable lifeguards out there but, often, I am left wondering.  The opinions expressed in this post are based on my own recent experiences given the amount of time I have spent in my local community pools.

For the past few years I have spent an insane amount of time at the local YMCA pool.  I first started out as a recreational lane swimmer in the evenings, then graduated last year to being an early morning lane swimmer and, l recently, I have been going just for fun with my step daughter family during the ‘Open Swim’ times as well.  As such, I got pretty well acquainted with all the life-guarding staff on all these shifts, as you might expect given the fact that I was there a lot.  And not just at one pool either, but at most of them inside the Niagara Region.   That’s a lot of lifeguards over the years.

During all this time, I will admit, I often find myself getting very frustrated with them.  I do understand that for the most part they are teenagers with an overinflated sense of importance and an under-inflated sense of responsibility but, seriously, some of the things I have seen and experience frustrate me no end and make me want to bludgeon them over the head with my kickboard.  These frustrations can range anywhere from simple ‘Are you kidding me?’ situations to the more serious ‘What the fuck?’ type of scenarios.  If I were a new Aquatics Director, one of my first acts would be to have some of these lifeguards publicly flogged with pool noodles as a lesson to other lazy and incompetent lifeguard wannabes as a warning to seek out other means with which to support their extensive cell phone texting plans.

Now, remember, I was a lifeguard myself back in the day so I definitely sympathize with their situation from time to time as I fully appreciate the positions they are often put in.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved those summer afternoons sitting up high in my lifeguard’s chair and feeling all powerful n’ shit but, still, sometimes stupid is just stupid; and, I have definitely seen and experienced stupid lately.  So the following concerns then are just a mere sampling of the things I have either witnessed or experienced that, while still pissing me off, really had me giving my head a serious shake.

1.  I’m too immature for this job. 

7425b69bdec35a3dd44e1b249847a157Did you know that lifeguards can become certified at as young as 15 years old, and even your pool’s head lifeguard or pool manager could be a teenager themselves?  Yeah.  I was a bit older when I was guarding, but it seems to me that the lifeguards are significantly younger now.  It can be really difficult for adolescents to be assertive and enforce pool rules, especially when it comes to bitchy morning swimmers (like myself apparently), and that reluctant senior who insists on breast-stroking down the middle of the Fast Lane.

While I’m sure some young guards are vigilant and professional, others are most definitely not.  If you can’t positively enforce your basic Lane Swim strategy, what faith do I have that you will enforce other pools rules that are designed for public safety? I have seen the young guards at my local community pool more than once turn a blind eye to valiantly dangerous behavior and rough housing during the ‘Family Swim’  times rather than address the situation appropriately.  Umm, hello?  If they can’t even enforce basic safety, how will these same guards respond to a life-or-death situation crisis resulting from the flagrant disregard for the pool rules?

Needless to say, we don’t swim there anymore as it’s supposed to be a fun ‘Family Swim’, junior, not ‘Beyond Thunderdome’. I also know that life-guarding is probably not what they might consider as career-pathing towards their ideal future dream job but, still, give me your best efforts will ya?  When I show up at the pool for an early 6:00am workout and you still haven’t even set up the lane ropes yet, don’t expect me to automatically jump in and do it for you.  I have exactly 60 minutes to swim, shower, get dressed and get my ass to work (or I’ll be fired) and nowhere did I factor in “setting up the pool” because you didn’t want to arrive until exactly one minute before opening and haven’t had the time yet.  I realize you’re, like, ‘eleventeen’ or something, and don’t have the same sense of urgency or responsibility as a mature adult but, please, at least look like you give a shit.  One lifeguard at my pool, will even get there early and pull out all the lane ropes, but then won’t pull them across because she “doesn’t like to get wet”.  Instead, she asks the swimmers to do it for her which, in most cases, is me.  Most times she just assumes we’re going to do it for her.  Hey honey, it’s not my job to do your job.  Besides, isn’t getting wet part of the basic job requirement?

2.  I barely passed my training and I haven’t practiced my skills in years.

I remember when I passed my ‘Canadian Red Cross Lifeguarding Certification’  program, of the original group of kids that participated, not a single one was ‘washed out’.  Were we all that good?  Certainly not!  In fact, some of the group outright sucked.  One member of our group could barely complete the basic distance swim test criterion herself, but she was certified anyway.

In most areas, a ‘certification’ basically means the person has mastered the ‘fundamentals’.  However, we really have no idea how much a guard struggled during the CPR training, Heart Saver, or whatever.  Likewise, most certifications used to be good up to three years, so a guard’s ‘basic’ training may not have been tested in the meantime; I know mine never was. Now, based on what I witnessed over the last few years, I doubt much has changed.  In fact, I used to swim in the evening during the Life-guarding Certification program at the local YMCA last year, and few were what I would consider to be ‘decent swimmers’ capable of comfortably completing the minimum swim qualification.  True, they don’t need to swim any great length at a community pool in order to reach someone who may be drowning, but that level of ability and, therefore, confidence in the water is definitely an advantage nonetheless.

Furthermore, I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen a lifeguard in the water, you know…swimming.  Are they even required to train or practice to maintain their skills?  In some places, perhaps, but in others I sincerely doubt it.  Sure, they may get in the water during swim lessons but, beyond that, I seldom even see the lifeguards wearing swimsuits anymore and more often than not, they tend to huddle together in their office between shifts and swap texts.  Here’s an idea, guys, SWIMPRACTISE!  Give me some sort of comfort level that if something ever goes terribly wrong you will be able to help me and not simply text someone else for assistance.  At the very least, set up the damn lane ropes!

3.  I might be in charge of the pool chemicals

poorly-trained-lifeguard-lawsuitNow, to be fair, the community pools I swim at have their chlorine levels monitored by an automatic system requiring minimal management from the actual lifeguards – thank Christ!  However, on occasion (some pools are worse than others) I will emerge from the pool as if I were emerging from the fiery pit of a volcano given that my skin is burning so badly.  Is it within the ability of the teenager on duty to take regulative action – not necessarily?  Sure, they take daily chlorine samples to make sure they are within reasonable levels, but even the slightest change within those legal limitations can be detected by my skin and eyes making me look like I’ve either just undergone several radiation treatment or have been on a weekend long bender.

Likewise, they may also have to maintain the pH and alkalinity levels as well.  Yes, the 16-year-old guards at your local pool could be handling everything from chlorine to muriatic acid.  In most circumstances, you have to have some sort of government certification to be able to handle and work around these types of hazardous chemicals…except for the community pool it seems.  Bacteria and parasites can thrive in water without a proper chlorine balance, and if the chlorine is too high, it can cause skin and eye irritation. I know this isn’t necessarily the fault or responsibility of the lifeguards on duty but, hey, when dealing with poisonous and potentially harmful chemicals I would sure feel better having someone in the know on deck and instantly available.

4.  Aside from the chemicals, the water might not be safe.

If someone vomits in the pool, or if you notice a guard fishing something out of the water that looks suspiciously like a Baby Ruth bar, everyone should be out of the water and the pool should be closed. On at least one occasion that I know of, I was allowed to keep swimming as the offending ‘fouling’ was removed from the pool.  I was only made aware after the fact and I almost had a meltdown right there on deck. Hey, and why not? A fecal contamination can spread E. coli, hepatitis and parasites so the pool should be closed anywhere from 20 minutes to 24 hours, depending on the type of stool and chlorine levels, according to Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Some guards may not be trained in how to handle such an incident, or they may be instructed to simply remove the contamination or to “shock” the pool — raising the amount of free chlorine to 10ppm — and allow swimmers back in, which isn’t safe; far from actually.  I was once told to exit the pool after a child dropped a deuce during a Family Swim but then told I could get back in in just a few minutes once it was skimmed from the water.  Umm, how about “No thanks!”   That’s fucking disgusting.  Would you drink water from a toilet simply because someone has scooped out the offending turd?


5.  I’ve never actually rescued anyone.

Just because lifeguards are trained to rescue drowning swimmers, doesn’t mean they ever have.  Some lifeguards might work for years and never have to perform a rescue. In fact, in a recent ‘International Lifeguard Survey’, %56 of lifeguards in North America working at community pools (myself included at the time) have never had to actually pull someone out of the water.

Now don’t get me wrong, I sincerely hope they never have to, but, think about it, what happens if/when they actually need to?  Will they instantly be able to snap to attention and take appropriate action?  That’s debatable.  And I speak from experience here – twice!  On two separate occasions I have pulled two other swimmers out of the water during a workout.  I am very cognizant of others while I am swimming – maybe it’s an old habit, whatever – but on both occasions I noticed someone else struggling elsewhere in the pool and on one of those occasions, they actually went under.  I cut short my lap – obviously – and made it over quickly enough to pull them to the side of the pool.  Where was the lifeguard?  On one occasion, they were chit-chatting in the guardhouse about God knows what, on the other, they were actually in their guard chair watching – WATCHING!  Hey, could you at least get down and pretend you actually cared about what was happening?  I can just imagine what was going through their head at the time:

 Hey, that kid over there looks like he’s in trouble.  Just be cool, he’ll come back up eventually.  Oh good!  That guy there is going to take care of it.  Good.  WHEW!  I was just getting comfortable up here.  Okay, back to the business of being cool…hey, baby, how you doin’?”

The guard never left the chair!  I was vivid.  Of course, a grown adult hollering at and criticizing a juvenile in public is certainly not going to win any favorable impressions of me, so I immediately left after the parent came to collect their child (yes, I did get a sincere ‘thank you’).   I left some comments of concern for the Aquatics Director afterwards, but that lifeguard still sits in that chair to date.

6.  I have the attention span of a gnat and get bored easily.

lifeguardsleepingStaring at the water for hours on end can be absolutely mind-numbing, I know, and it’s easy for a young guard’s thoughts to wander to their lunch plans or maybe let their eyes wander to the group of bikini-clad girls at the other end of the pool.  I get it – I wouldn’t want to watch my fat ass going back and forth for 90 minutes either…particularly when your pool sound system is playing some sort of mellow, aquatic whale music or something.  It must be like slow death.  But, still, that was the occupational hazard you accepted when you took the job.  Deal with it.  Dose up on caffeine, or stab yourself in the leg every two minutes with a fork, whatever, just get it together and get back to business at hand of watching over us swimmers.

It’s my opinion, based on my limited parenting that kids today all suffer from sort of ADS.  It’s really just a question of how badly.  I know my step-daughter can’t go 3.2 nanoseconds without some sort of digital or automated stimulus before she begins to shrink into the fetal position and fade away into dust.  Are the young lifeguards at my pool any different given that most of them are also from this same digital age?  I doubt it given that glazed over stare they have most of the time.  I swear, you could light off firecrackers under their guard chair and you’d likely get no reaction whatsoever (refer back to #4).

What can be done about this you ask?  Beats me, hence it being a real concern of mine since often there is only one guard on duty during the designated lane swim for the entire pool.  And, assuming, they’ve been up all night playing video games how confident am I then that they are alert and attentive?  Yeah, right.

So what do I hope to achieve through this post?  Well, nothing actually; it’s just often the way it is.  But let’s just say that I approach swimming now in the same way I do while out biking or running.  I don’t immediately assume everything is just hunky-dory; I exercise extreme caution and assume that everyone else is a total moron ready to mow me down where I pedal (paddle).  Therefore, I’m always ready to take evasive action and avoid the offending action to the best of my ability and thwart my ever having been in harms way in the first place.  Because, you know, G.I. Joe said it best:  “Knowing is half the battle”. 

But, should that day ever come when I actually need some prompt assistance while swimming, well, God help me.  I can only hope that I will be in the presence of a mature, responsible and capable lifeguard and not ‘ol fifteen year old Bimblenuts who simply thinks that wearing a whistle is cool.

  1. Brock says:

    Great analysis of the follies of lifeguards today. You really hit the nail on the head there. I really appreciate that you pointed out how lifeguards can become certified as young as 15 and may even be managers as teenagers. I actually started lifeguard at the young and naive age of 15. I’ll admit that going into my first year as a lifeguard I felt unprepared and nervous. However, with the guidance of my Head Guard I was able to become (in my opinion) a great lifeguard prepared for any situation.

    I am now, at the preposterously young age of 18, a Head Guard in charge of 85+ guards. How can I deal with these teenagers? I mean as you said before all they care about is looking tan and cool. There’s no way they’ll ever take their job seriously right?

    My guards are must attend in-services every other week to address problems I see in there scanning, saving, and in keeping policy. But that’s not just my pool, that is a standard of the American Red Cross. Maybe there is something you suggest I do? You seem to be the authority on lifeguarding. I doubt you were ever that worthless teenager just trying to look cool.

    Your points are not only skewed, but outright false.
    1. You may have been, and may still be, too immature to be a lifeguard.
    2. Facilities are required to test and assure the competency of lifeguards.
    3. Lifeguards may be required to monitor, but never adjust pool chemicals.
    4. Lifeguards would never risk a possible water contamination, after all we have to be in the same water as you.
    5. I have made many rescues of many different sorts, but why should that ever be a prerequisite for competency.
    6. Your ignorance and lack of ability should in no way reflect the lifeguarding community.

    Why smear a profession trained and engaged in protecting patrons?

    P.S. What is your intellectual opinion on Swim Instructors?

    • To answer your question regarding their ability to teach – since you went there – I’ll tell you. It sucks. When a guard is reading magazines while the kids are “doing laps”, how is that instructing? Explain that to me. Standing around talking with other guards while the kids do belly flops is not “instructing”. Yes, it happens. Perhaps not in your pool but, again, these are my experiences. I witnessed it. Therefore, I spend the majority of my week with my step-daughter correcting the bad habits (or lack of habits altogether) she picks up in class and as a result, she now swims better, more efficiently, and has more confidence in the water than the others in her class. At the very best, it provides a social outlet for her so we allow her to continue knowing I can fix later what she fails to grasp/learn in her lessons.

      Your own immaturity definitely comes out a little in this post as you have obviously skipped over the Disclaimer altogether and instead jumped right into the role of the “angry poster” based on what you didn’t like. Thank you for validating my original concern. These opinions (as clearly expressed) are based on my own experiences and what I have witnessed firsthand and are therefore as valid as your own. They were not intended as a slight against you personally which, clearly, you seem to have taken them to be. I stand by what I have stated in this post. But thank you for your thoughts, however misguided.

  2. Kassie says:

    Personally, contrary to your snooty comment, Brock was the one who had actually corrected you.

    • Thank you, Kassie. But what you and Brock have failed thus far to make clear to me is that – again – the things that I have witnessed (repeatedly, I might add) should NOT have led me to the conclusions that I now currently have. You are therefore comparing apples and oranges and unless you are willing to accept that everyone’s opinions are of their own as a result of these direct experiences (all of which were clearly stated in the post itself, although you chose to ignore them I guess), we will have to agree to disagree.

  3. Favo says:

    Having just completed the national lifeguard course and now working as a lifeguard I find these comments very negative and ill informed certainly there are bad lifeguards out there but the physical requirement to get certified were brutal try swimming 16 legnths in under 10 minutes, swim underwater for 20 meters and swim a legnth dive underwater to grab a submerged victim and tow them a legnth in under 90 seconds I would like to see anyone try this and then come back and say just anyone can do this I don’t think so at our pool we all train hard are older many of us have emergency medical backgrounds so to be painted with the same brush is frankly bigoted and ignorant

    • I pray you please go back and read the disclaimer. *sigh*

      Congratulations on your excellent swim prowess. Perhaps you can come work at my pool? I would bet my life that none of the guards at my community pool can do what you describe. Btw…in the year since this post was written, I myself – as a swimmer mind you – have yanked out another struggling swimmer while the lifeguard watched. WATCHED. My frustration with them continues…

      However, I have since found another pool that I feel much more secure and safe swimming at.

      – The Ignorant Bigot.

  4. Favo says:

    Lol well I am sorry you have had such bad experiences with lifeguards at our pool any of those things you described would be grounds for getting fired and if a person drowned because of neglect getting sued I take my job very seriously and I am appalled that people like that make a bad name for the good ones out there I am amazed that that facility you described has not been sued and shut down. Hope you have better experiences in the future

    • My opinion – that I apparently failed at communicating – is that not all pools uphold the necessary skill sets and character traits amongst their guards that are important in such a position. It’s sad, but it’s true. While many pools do so – in my experience – many do not; the majority of which in this area I believe to be of the later.

  5. Elizabeth C says:

    I can relate to your frustrations. I don’t understand why everyone is getting offended, your only sharing what you’ve witnessed. You didn’t bash all life guards or say anything negative really. Your only sharing experiences, which might help improve someone else. I just joined a pool and the lifeguard is morbidly obese. In no way am i being cruel or putting anyone down, but i dont feel safe. I have children who need a lifeguard that can react in a second and fast. This woman is over 300lbs and has told me she has trouble walking due to ankle pain. I’m not sure how she is allowed to remain employed as a lifeguard. You have to be in decent shape right? It’s mind blowing. Thanks for sharing, i enjoyed learning about lifeguards and knowing there are amazing, hard working life guards out there is a relief.

  6. Rae M. says:

    Although I agree that 16 is young to be a guard, I have never had a guard freeze in an incident. After they might sit on the floor in a ball and sob, but in the moment, the training kicks in and they are fantastic. We train two or three times a month as a group, and are required to recertify every two years. We run through physical standards, which are swimming 16 lengths in under ten min, 2 lengths head up in under 50 seconds, a timed approach and retrieval, and 20 meters with no air. A pool guard is never going to be in a situation where these skills are not way overkill, but we do them to ensure fitness. We also train in emergency procedures, such as DNS, Spinal, Fire, Tornado, Chemical Spill, Heart Attack, Stroke, and Lock Down, to name a few. Our scanning and recognition is randomly and frequently tested, and at any moment myself or another leader might be hiding and filling out a report on a guards deck presence, scanning, PR, and awareness.
    Morning lane swim is boring as heck, so we have tricks to stay alert. I take a drip proof mug of tea and oatmeal out with me, and nibble and sip when I’m sitting. A jaunt around the deck is rather unessary, but give us a good excuse to get our blood flowing. Breaking down your strokes in my mind is also very satisfying. If you ever want to improve your efficiency, let the guard know. They’ve been dying to tell you for weeks. Another thing to keep my brain going is music. Although my hard rock/alternative/techno/the-softest-metal-I-own playlist may not be to your taste, Singing along to it while I scan can keep my drooping twenty year old brain functioning for two hours in the very very early morning. Besides, your ears are in the water and you can’t really hear it. A conversation with the patrons in the hot tub can help too, as long as your ok with me looking at the water not you.
    I do notice that the most frequent trouble we have with guards not speaking up is when they know, from personal experience, that the adult or teen breaking the rules or allowing their charge to break the rules is going to fight them every step of the way. We have enough to handle without you fighting us. Please make our day just a little bit easier by nodding, grinning, and saying, sorry! it won’t happen again!. If you want to avoid the embarrassment of a twelve year old lifeguard in training scolding you while their supervising guard snickers behind a discreet hand, read the handy rule boards. We do so wish you would.
    While you’re busy with those, don’t forget rule ten. “Lifeguards have full authority”. Even when you disagree with us. We are trained, and trained, and trained, and just when you think you have the training thing done, oh, Look! more training. Its never ending. As annoying as it can be to train on all your off days, It helps us keep you safe, and we never really resent it, just like to whine about it.
    On those wonderful months when it is not my turn to wake up at three thirty in the morning to open the pool, I love to lane swim. I have this wonderful under water ipod, and it makes an hour kick set fly by. Unfortunately, when I’m at the pool during the rest of the day, I’m on the clock and could get fired for going for a swim. If we are not teaching or guarding, we are doing the maintenance. Floor scrubbing, dusting, scum line, windows, paperwork, running the till, and myriad other tasks take up my day. If you want to swim with your guards, lane swims in the morning and evening are your best time. Some days the pool looks a bit like our phone list came to life.
    Our job has some downsides, however. Split shift, few or no breaks, being on your feet all day, always being in the public eye, shifts where all nine hours are spent in the water, the days you have 120 report cards to write, and people who don’t follow the rules or understand that we are kids doing a very difficult job. We come to work every day aware that we could watch somebody die, and if we don’t check under the foam boats, that death could be our fault. As a result, we can sometimes be aggressive about the rules, from fear, not a superiority complex. We also are sometimes immature, or plain silly, just to relieve the stress.
    I understand that we may not always look like we can dive in to rescue you, but remember the physical standards I mentioned? I may be a plump woman, at 6 foot tall and 235 lbs, but I can probably out swim you, and have an awesome eggbeater. The plus side, of course, is that I’ll have a much easier time holding onto the body builder that walked through the door when he goes down than a woman who’s 5’3 and 85 lbs.
    I’m truly sorry you’ve had bad experiences with guards and facilities. I wish everyone who walked into a pool could have a good experience. If you feel that a lifeguard or swimming instructor or aquatic supervisor is not fulfilling the standards necessary, I urge you to call The Lifesaving Society or Red Cross. This could be a serious problem, and its best to involve the experts.

    • Thank you for your insightful comments. I sincerely appreciate you not taking this post personal and immediately jumping down my throat for attacking “all” lifeguards as others above have done. I have since switched pools and the care providing is much better. For the record, your body size has nothing to do with your swim ability. I am a larger guy myself who swims circles around other “fitter” looking swimmers. My objection only lies in not seeing the guards swim very often. If I were their aquatic director, it would be mandatory.

  7. Rae M. says:

    Sorry, it started as a ‘oh no. thats worrying, heres how a good pool runs things,’ and turned into a ‘heres every thing patrons typically don’t understand, and they love to complain about’ response. I just hope some one who reads it takes something away about the difficulties and joys of a guard.

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