Poolside protectors

Lifeguards: Columbia devises a new challenge for the teens who keep watch at the community's pools.

April 03, 2002|By Megan Watzin | Megan Watzin,SUN STAFF

Summertime is coming, but the living won't be easy for the 215 lifeguards assigned to protect the nearly half-million swimmers expected to mob the Columbia Association's 23 outdoor pools.

Some might think that those well-tanned teen-agers sitting in the guard chairs spend their hours daydreaming behind their sunglasses about that attractive person lounging on the other side of the pool.

But the truth is that the guards have been strictly trained and are frequently taped while on duty, sometimes without their knowledge. If the supervisors reviewing the tapes are not satisfied with what they see, a guard could lose his job.

"Lifeguards often don't get a good reputation because of their age. A lot of people don't know that it's a hard job," said Darby van Conover, assistant aquatics director for the Columbia Association.

This year, Columbia's lifeguard trainers are adding a significant challenge.

Lifeguards almost always spot the frantic splashing of a swimmer in trouble on the surface, water safety experts say, but noticing a body lying on the bottom of the pool is far more difficult.

Columbia's lifeguards are being trained to spot dummies on the pool bottom and then will be tested after they go on duty with dummies slipped into the pools they are watching.

"It helps them to see what a body on the bottom of a pool actually looks like. It's not the arms and legs flailing, which they can easily spot. It often looks just like a shadow," said van Conover.

The test is being added for the Columbia guards after an experiment last year at more than 90 pools across the nation in which 14 percent of lifeguards never noticed a dummy under water.

The goal for lifeguards in Columbia will be to spot the dummy in 10 seconds or less. One minute will be the limit. If the guard does not spot the dummy within the time constraint, they will be immediately pulled from the stand for additional in-service training, said van Conover.

Eve Finstein, 17, who for the past two years has been a lifeguard at the River Hill Pool, the most-visited pool in Columbia, called the dummies "a real awakening."

"In the past when I've been audited scanning from the stand, I've gotten 100 percent each time, so I considered myself confident with my scanning ability," she said in a recent interview. "But it took me much longer than I was expecting to find the dummy, and it really made me change my attitude up in the stand."

The Columbia lifeguard training and random performance monitoring is conducted by Jeff Ellis & Associates, of Kingwood Texas. The company's National Pool and Waterpark Lifeguard Training Program is used to prepare lifeguards for Disney, Six Flags Theme Parks, and many other water parks across the country.

Ron Rhinehart, vice president of the company, said every Columbia pool will have three to five unannounced videotaped audits each year in addition to observations and tapings by Columbia Association supervisors.

Training for first-year Columbia lifeguards is nearly a 48-hour commitment, almost double the 24-hour requirement of many other pool systems across the nation.

Van Conover says the training is only slightly less complex than that of emergency medical technicians. Not only do the guards learn basic cardiopulmonary resuscitation, they are also trained in the use of many different breathing and rescue apparatus.

Returning guards participate in a 12- to 16-hour recertification that can take place from November to June.

In addition, the guards complete four hours of required in-service training per month during the summer, and many pool staffs will practice much more than that. Some guards try to fit in at least a five-minute practice or review each day during the swimming season.

"The average person has never seen us make a rescue, so they've never seen our skills in action and they don't know the level of our skills," said Finstein.

Most lifeguards in the Columbia Association's pool system are 16 and 17 years old. Assistant managers are usually, but not always, college age.

This is the first year in five years that the Columbia Association has had a full pool staff. Lifeguard shortages have been a national problem, but this year, with an 85 percent return rate and a large number of new guards, no position will go unfilled, said van Conover.

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