A Day in the Life of a Lifeguard

By Eric Mansfield

It's 5:45 am, and you wake up to the sound of the wind whistling through the leaves. You feel the cold air on your face as your tent flaps flutter, and you think you ought to have tied them a little more securely before going to bed. In the distance, you hear singing—surely it must be a thrush, announcing the arrival of the first rays of sunlight in the treetops? No, it's your Aquatics Director, and he's calling his lifeguards to get up for Polar Bear Swim.

Ten minutes later, you're at the waterfront. You exchange your shoes for sandles. The left one is still wet; it never fully dried from when you accidentally kicked it off the dock and into the lake yesterday. You shiver a bit.

The whole staff is here, and the head lifeguard gives out assignments. You're assigned to perform surveillance from the floating dock at the far end of the swimming area. The only way to get there is by swimming. You grumble a bit, but accept your assignment—after all, you're part of a team and you want to do your share. At least this means you'll have swam enough days to earn your own Polar Bear patch. You place your buddy tag on the board, grab a rescue tube, and walk to the end of the cold metallic dock. You remove your Froggie tee-shirt and balance it expertly on top of your rescue tube as you swim across to the floating dock, trying to keep it as dry as possible.

The next thirty minutes pass without incident. Hunger and cold have started to set in, but the head lifeguard has thought of this already. Before long, another guard has come to relieve you. Grateful, you swim back to the dock and, after quickly drying off, take up position at a new post. Some of the swimmers are doing extra laps for the Mile Swim, and signs of exhaustion are showing, so you watch them closely. Several times you think you might end up performing a rescue, but each time the swimmers are able to regain their stride. Once, you even see movement in your peripheral vision indicative of the Instinctive Drowning Reponse, but it turns out to just be a swimmer treading water, catching his breath.

Morning flag ceremony. Together with your fellow lifeguards, you salute and pledge your allegience to our nation's flag. You are old enough to know that younger Scouts are watching you and look up to the aquatics staff, so you do your best to ignore your hunger and maintain your dignity. At this point, the sun is shining now and the cold is a little more bearable. You find it hard to believe that the forecast high today is ninety degrees.

Finally, breakfast. You try to eat quickly so you can get back to prepare for your first and second period teaching assignments as an Eagle Corps assistant: Lifesaving Merit Badge. After a second helping of pancakes, you down a glass of water. And then another. And another. You drink five cups in all. Experience has taught you that the only way to stay cool and hydrated is to drink far more water than you think is necessary.

It's 8:15 and the sun is high above the trees now. The cold has finally left your body, and you begin the thrice-daily ritual of sunscreen application. You're meticulous, methodical. Miss one spot and you'll have a sunburn within the hour. You'll be in the sun for almost nine hours today. Last year, when you took BSA Lifeguard, you were not so careful. You'll never make that mistake again.

You meet up with the Lifesaving Merit Badge counselor and go over today's lesson plan: "go" rescues. The most dangerous of all rescue techniques, the lifeguard or lifesaver enters the water and places himself nearly within arm's reach of a panicking drowning victim, with nothing but a simple flotation device separating them. If the flotation device slips away, or the rescuer approches too close, the victim could grab hold of the rescuer, pulling him under water. But you're not at all worried. You've practiced this skill dozens of times, most recently on Saturday before camp began, when the entire staff met to rehearse emergency procedures and rescue drills. The day-long training left you tired, but prepared. You're confident you can demonstrate the skill correctly.

The Scouts begin arriving for first period. Soon, the entire waterfront is buzzing with Scouts and lifeguards. The Lifesaving class goes well. You demonstrated the various rescues flawlessly. You really enjoy teaching, and you wait with anticipation for the second period class to start.

By the time you've finished with your second period class, the heat is really starting to bear down. You've drank about a liter and a half since first period began, but it never seems to be enough. At lunch, you drain seven cups more. You make sure to eat plenty of food as well—you need to be fully refreshed and ready for action when free time starts.

1:00 pm. Free time: the most stressful hour of the day. It has always been the unfortunate reality of a lifeguard's duty—that others' holidays are your busiest work days, and "free time" is no exception. The day's heat has brought over a hundred Scouts to the waterfront. You will barely have enough staff to maintain the required ten-to-one ratio of swimmers to lifeguards. Luckily, it seems some of the Scouts are here to take out canoes and kayaks, where the ten-to-one ratio doesn't apply. But that will still leave about sixty to guard in the swimming areas.

With so many swimmers, the waterfront is divided into zones of surveillance responsibility. The head lifeguard assigns you to a zone in the Swimmers area, an area of the waterfront that can reach up to twelve feet in depth. When there are only a few swimmers in your zone of responsibility, it is easy to keep track of them all. One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four. All still there. But with swimmers entering and exiting your zone all the time, climbing out, jumping in, it's impossible to watch them all simultaneously. This is where you need to rely on your training. You scan your entire area continually, looking for the tell-tale signs of somebody in trouble. You can't turn away for a moment—if a Scout were to suddenly slip under the water, he would disappear without a trace.

Time for another buddy check. The head lifeguard blows a whistle, long and loud, and the Scouts have 15 seconds to get out of the water and hold their buddy's hand in the air. During a buddy check, one lifeguard from each swimming area reports the number of buddies, plus the number of triples, that are present in their area. Then these numbers are compared with the number of buddy tags on the buddy board. The Learners and Beginners areas both match—all the swimmers are present and accounted for. The lifeguard stationed at the buddy board then calls down to you: "SWIMMERS!" You yell back, "ELEVEN PLUS ONE!" meaning eleven buddy pairs, plus one buddy triple, or twenty-five swimmers in total. The buddy board responds, "INCORRECT!" Sometimes this happens, when you miss a Scout or two that was behind another during your initial count. So, you count even more carefully this time, making sure to look around and behind everyone. This time the count will come out right. But the count is still eleven plus one. You triple check, and you're sure—there's exactly twenty-five swimmers on the dock.

At this point, the lifeguards up at the buddy board are beginning to look nervous. There's a lot of hasty communication going back and forth, with several lifeguards craning their necks to look out over the water, mouthing the numbers one, two, three, and so on, as they hurriedly point and count each swimmer in turn. Before long, the head lifeguard calls for all the swimmers to clear the waterfront, which you think is strange because free time is not even half over. It's evident something is wrong, as lifeguard staff from all across the waterfront begin to converge onto the beach. You realize this can only mean one thing, that the buddy check count was incorrect, and that a swimmer has gone missing.

The head lifeguard calls for all the lifeguards to get in the water and line up along the dock facing the Swimmers area, an arm's length apart. Makes sense, as that was the section of the waterfront where the count was incorrect, so it's probably where the missing swimmer is. You've practiced for situations like this before, but nothing can prepare you for the real thing. On a signal from the head lifeguard, you perform a surface dive with the rest of the lifeguards. The environment under the water is surreal. The quiet and stillness of the water is in such stark contrast to the noisy bustle of just a few moments ago, that for a while you lose concentration. Then as you pass the thermocline and feel the temperature drop, you snap back into the moment. You reach the bottom, and you look and feel for anything that shouldn't be there. After three forward strokes you surface, and prepare to dive again. The bottom of the lake gradually slopes down, so with each dive, you plunge deeper into the cold, never knowing if you will find something there.

A Lost Swimmer Search, as it is called, is one of the most demanding and exhausting tasks a lifeguard will ever face. More precautions are taken to prevent lifeguards from becoming endangered themselves during a lost swimmer search than with any other activity. Multiple lifeguards remain on the dock to guard the others that are in the water. Each time the lifeguards surface after a dive, a count is made to confirm all the lifeguards made it back up all right. Then, the line is moved backward to the position of the lifeguard who progressed the least, plus one body length. This ensures that no part of the area is missed, but it also means that it can take dozens of dives to search just one area. Just when it seems like you can't manage another dive, the aquatics director arrives and announces that the missing Scout has been found.

During the debrief that follows, you learn that there was in fact a buddy tag unaccounted for on the buddy board, in the Swimmers area. When it became clear that there was a missing swimmer, the aquatics director declared an emergency, and the camp-wide mobilization was started. After the Scouts were all checked out of the waterfront and had been matched up with their respective buddy tags, the identity of the missing Scout was finally known. This Scout was quickly found, and was actually nowhere near the waterfront.

Many theories were suggested as to how an extra buddy tag came to be on the buddy board. Some of the staff think that a gust of wind must have blown a buddy tag off its hook, over the fence, and onto another hook in the Swimmers area of the buddy board. Personnally, you think it just got blown onto the ground where someone picked it up and placed it back onto the wrong board. Eventually, after discussion with all persons involved, it was determined that one of the Scouts who swam that afternoon, had also swam earlier in the week, and after leaving the waterfront, had placed his wet tag on the same hook as the missing Scout's tag. Then, today, he inadvertantly picked up both tags, which had become stuck together because of the wetness. This wasn't discovered until the tags had both been placed onto the Swimmers area of the buddy board, where they were subsequently separated, as it is not customary to place more than one tag on a single hook. So, the aquatics director says that from now on, you are to inspect the tags more carefully as each Scout presents them, and fan them with your finger, to make sure there is only one tag.

The search and debrief took the remainder of free time, and your last two periods of the day you spend performing surveillance. It's been a long, hot, exhausting day. But the swimming areas are usually much less crowded after dinner, so you might be able to take a little time to climb the iceberg or take a paddleboard out for a spin. You wore your uniform to dinner, so you change back into your swimsuit and take a short shift performing surveillance. The head lifeguard eventually relieves you and lets you paddle around the lake with a couple of the other lifeguards. As sunset approaches, you help put away the equipment and rinse the dock. Lots of Scouts have left muddy footprints on the dock today, and your director wants those docks to be bright and clean for Polar Bear tomorrow morning.

You change back into your uniform and head over to the campfire program. You sit in the front row with the rest of the lifeguards, making last minute preparations for the skit you practiced before dinner. After the campfire, you head back to the aquatics staff cabin for a little socializing before bed. You can't help thinking how strange it is that, despite the strenuous work you did today, how much you really love being here.

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