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Lifeguards trained for many scenarios

Sunday, July 13, 2014


For many students, lifeguarding is a reliable summer job. It’s also an exercise in vigilance, according to the lifeguard instructor for the Piedmont chapter of the American Red Cross.

Susan Cart trains lifeguards each May before the pool opens at the Bassett Community Center. She also gives swim lessons to children there. Well-trained lifeguards and sound swimmers go hand in hand, she said.

“The younger kids are learning how to swim, the better off they are,” she said. Not only that, but lifeguards need to train frequently to be ready for anything.

Lifeguards must be certified by the Red Cross every two years, Cart said. To do that, they must complete a pre-course, which includes swimming six full laps (down and back) the length of the pool, then swim 25 yards, dive and retrieve a brick with both hands, using only their legs to backstroke to the edge — as they would do if carrying a drowning victim.

Things such as lap swimming are key for lifeguards, who need to remain fit, she added. Cart, who once was the pool manager at the community center, said she used to make lifeguards there swim 500 laps a week to make sure they were in good physical shape.

When a swimmer is in danger, she said, lifeguards must jump into action — figuratively and literally, by enacting their “emergency action plan.” That involves sounding an alarm whistle — usually two or three short bursts, pointing to the victim to let other lifeguards and swimmers know where the victim is, “and then, you’re in the water,” working to recover the swimmer, she said.

Victims are recovered and pulled to shore atop rescue boards that lifeguards carry, Cart said.

Lifeguards also need to have what Cart called “in-service training,” a sort of remedial session where pool managers go over what lifeguards learn in their certification classes.

“Even though these lifeguards are trained, everybody needs to have in-service training” to keep their action plans foremost in their minds, she said.

For new lifeguards, Cart suggests spending the first summer of work at a local pool to gain experience, because there is less ground to cover and the bottom of the water — and therefore any potential victim — can be seen.

When 18-year-old Kerion Jykeem Witcher of Martinsville drowned in the swimming area at Fairy Stone State Park on July 4, witnesses estimated he may have been underwater for as many as 45 minutes before he was pulled out, according to previous reports. Such outdoor environments make the job of a lifeguard difficult, Cart said.

“It’s harder to lifeguard at a park like Fairy Stone (because) you can’t see the bottom,” she said. “I tell all my lifeguards to go to a pool to get their experience. Then go to a park.”

Conditions in outdoor areas also can be a danger, according to Henry County-Martinsville YMCA Executive Director Brad Kinkema, because uneven water temperatures and depths can cause swimmers’ muscles to cramp or tense up.

An added danger to swimmers is the risk of medical emergencies, as many drownings occur not as a result of swimming accidents, but of medical problems that force victims to take in water.

“The difficulty in water is, if you have a stroke or heart attack, you inhale water,” Kinkema said. “It’s much more significant if you have a medical emergency in an aquatic environment.

Especially because “knowing how to move in water does not come naturally to people,” Kinkema said, swimming education is a lifeguard’s best friend.

“The best thing to safeguard against drowning is making competent swimmers,” he said.

However, even if strong swimming education can eliminate “99.9 percent of all drownings,” Kinkema said, the slightest lack of diligence in water can result in death.

“Ninety-nine point nine percent isn’t good enough for a lifeguard,” he said. “That’s hard to drill into an 18- or 19-year-old.”


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