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Lifeguards and Water Safety

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Could you recognize a person drowning? What would it look like?

While Pamela Anderson might have made a (television) career out of saving screaming, flailing drowning victims from the ocean, it was a Hollywood-style version of lifeguarding, and it doesn't depict what a real lifeguard sees when they spot a drowning person. A person who is drowning isn't screaming for help, and isn't thrashing around in the water. That's what Hollywood would have you believe - it makes for good drama. But the fact is, drowning is a nearly silent event.

What Drowning Looks Like

Nowhere is the human instinct for self-preservation as strong as it is when a person encounters trouble in the water. All the extra energy that you assume would be used to wave or call for help is instead funneled to just keeping your head above water.

Known as the Instinctive Drowning Response, the actions of a drowning person are automatic and do nothing to alert others that a drowning is occurring. Lifeguards are trained to recognize this instinctive reaction to drowning, and that can mean the difference between life and death for many swimmers.

Can You Rely on Lifeguards?

Lifeguards undergo extensive training in order to sit in that elevated chair by the water. The American Red Cross certifies lifeguards after an intensive 25-hour course that includes instruction on rescue skills, CPR/AED, first aid, and a final exam. In Evansville, this certification is available through courses offered at the YMCA of Southwestern Indiana.

Each year, lifeguards in the United States save an estimated 100,000 people from drowning. But while lifeguards are a staple at public pools and beaches, where their presence is required by law, the mere presence of a lifeguard is no assurance that you will be safe in the water. Lifeguards are a last line of defense against drowning - your first and best defense is to learn to swim.

Swimming Safely

When properly trained and equipped, a lifeguard can make a significant difference in the safety of the swimmers under his or her watchful eye. But don't assume that just because you see a lifeguard on duty that you'll be safe in the water. There are other criteria you need to consider before diving in:

  • Number of lifeguards on duty - The presence of an empty lifeguard chair may mean that the pool is not adequately staffed, and that the other lifeguards may be tasked with watching more than one area of the pool.
  • Elevated lifeguard chairs - A seat height of three feet or more provides a better overview of the water's surface, helping a lifeguard to spot a swimmer in trouble.
  • Lifeguards properly equipped - Part of a lifeguard's personal equipment should include polarized sunglasses, which helps reduce glare from the water, a whistle, and a megaphone if the swimming area is sufficiently large. They should also be wearing standard uniform swimsuits and apparel so that they are easily recognized as lifeguards.
  • Life-saving equipment on hand - Lifeguards should be equipped with rescue boards, cans, or tubes readily at hand, and the pool area should also include rescue equipment such as buoys, throw lines, and life hooks.
  • First aid equipment on hand - Lifeguards must be able to perform first aid and CPR, and must have the proper supplies to treat scrapes and bruises as well as provide support for major trauma while awaiting emergency services. Look for equipment such as backboards and AED devices.
  • Posted signage - Pool depths should be clearly marked, and there should be a float-and-rope safety divider where deeper water exists. Also, signs that spell out pool rules and warn against diving should be conspicuous all around the pool.

Becoming a Lifeguard

For some individuals, lifeguarding is a summer job between semesters of school. For others, it becomes a career.

It might surprise you to learn that the minimum age to become a lifeguard is 15. Think about that for a moment. Even with all the training and certifications, when all is said and done, you're putting your life in the hands of someone who might not even be old enough to drive. It's a significant responsibility, both for the individual and for the facility that hires them.

Even though lifeguards undergo extensive training and must be certified, it's still possible for someone to be injured or drown on their watch. Your best protection against this type of tragedy is to become water competent and to pay attention to the way your public swimming facility is managed. Lifeguards are the last line of defense against drowning, not the first.

If you are interested in becoming a lifeguard, contact the YMCA of Southwestern Indiana. And if you want to hone your swimming skills, there are numerous programsavailable throughout the city for all skill levels.

Summer means water fun - at the pool, at the waterpark, on the lake, and on the river. At Gerling Law, we encourage everyone to take water safety seriously - the life you save may be your own!

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