- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 16, 2006

Megan Honour is in her swimsuit and goggles, ready to swim 500 yards — 20 laps — in a Falls Church pool.

It is her 15th birthday, making her old enough to take the exit requirements for becoming a lifeguard. She passes the test, allowing her to start work as a lifeguard the next day at her neighborhood pool in Fairfax.

“When I was little, the older lifeguards were the cool kids,” Megan says, adding that she and her friends are on the same swim teams and are lifeguarding this summer at the same swimming pool. She is a member of the swim team at Fairfax High School, where she will be a 10th-grader in the fall, and also participates in winter and summer leagues. “We wanted to be the cool kids,” she says.

Though being a lifeguard has a certain allure for young people like Megan, there has been an increasing shortage of lifeguards in the past 10 years, says B.J. Fisher, director of health and safety for the American Lifeguard Association (ALA), an educational association in Vienna that sponsors health and safety training programs.

Megan took the lifeguarding course in May through the ALA, which offers a 29-hour course on Tuesdays and Thursdays and during the weekend.

“The public perceives the skills as being more difficult than they are, which minimizes the number of youth turning out to become lifeguards,” Mr. Fisher says.

Mr. Fisher attributes the shortage to a number of factors, including the opening of more swimming facilities to accommodate population growth, pay averaging $7 to $12 an hour, and the time commitment and cost of training, which typically is $200, he says. Employers sometimes dock training costs from paychecks or cover the costs through membership organizations, such as the ALA, he says.

“We need to perceive these individuals as medical professionals, because they are the first line to save a life,” Mr. Fisher says.

Lifeguard trainees are required to take courses in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, first aid and lifeguarding. The American Red Cross and the YMCA of the USA, along with park authorities, lifeguarding associations and private pool facilities, offer courses in some or all of these skills. The Red Cross and YMCA focus training on pools and water parks and the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) on open water, currents, surface conditions and other hazardous swimming conditions.

Training involves classroom and in-pool work with demonstrations and practicing skills.

“The primary task of a lifeguard is to prevent injuries from occurring,” says Francesco Pia, a lifeguard and member of the Red Cross’s Advisory Council for First Aid and Safety.

The Red Cross, headquartered in Northwest, sets the standards for the material taught in lifeguarding courses and the qualifications of participants. The Red Cross, which trains about 89 percent of lifeguards in the United States, requires that participants be at least 15 years of age by the last day of the course and have basic swimming skills. Participants have to take a pre-screening and exit test of 500 yards of continuous swimming and a surface dive to retrieve a 10-pound object, which simulates the weight of a victim, and swim with it for 20 yards. The 500-yard swim includes 200 yards of the front crawl, often called the freestyle, and 100 yards of the breaststroke, along with 200 yards of either stroke.

Lifeguard trainees also should know the sidestroke and elementary backstroke, both of which allow for carrying a victim to safety, Mr. Fisher says, adding that the four strokes are taught in the typical swimming class.

“The most important thing is to be a strong swimmer and in good swimming shape,” says Tom Gill, spokesman for the USLA’s Virginia Beach office. The nonprofit professional organization focuses on improving standards and conditions for open water lifesavers and educating the public about beach safety.

Lifeguards are trained to communicate and enforce a facility’s rules and regulations and to conduct “patron surveillance,” scanning the pool or water area for unsafe swimming practices and swimmers who may be in distress, says Mr. Pia, who holds a doctorate in interdisciplinary studies. The scanning is done either by walking the deck or from an elevated stand, he says.

The lifeguards use whistles, hand signals and flags to communicate with the public, Mr. Gill says.

“We’re out here trying to educate people, instruct people on how to stay out of dangerous situations,” he says.

Lifeguard training covers recognizing a drowning victim, responding to an emergency and enacting an emergency action plan, Mr. Fisher says. Lifeguard trainees learn how to approach and rescue victims who have head, back, neck and spinal cord injuries or who are submerged, who are passive (the industry’s term for unconscious), or who are active, or struggling, he says.

Lifeguard trainees learn how to identify swimmers from non-swimmers and how to detect potential problems before they occur, says Kay Smiley, specialty consultant for aquatics and scuba for the YMCA of the USA, a support organization in Chicago for more than 2,600 independent YMCA facilities.

Once trained, lifeguards can be hired by park authorities, cities, hotels and swimming pool management companies. If they work for a swimming pool or water park, they can be 15 years old, but must be at least 16 at beaches and open water, such as lakes. Some facilities only hire lifeguards who are 18 and older.

“We look for … somebody who’s going to be outgoing and speak up and take control of a situation if they have to,” says Jay Allred, aquatics manager for the Leesburg Department of Parks and Recreation, which bases its lifeguarding courses on the Red Cross program. “They can make decisions in high-pressure situations.”

Lifeguards are encouraged to continue and expand their education through advanced courses, such as advanced first aid, oxygen administration, and swimming pool operation, which includes information on the chemistry, filtration and county codes of pool facilities.

“There are very few jobs young adolescents can be employed at where they carry the responsibility of life or death,” Mr. Pia says.


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