The life of a guard: Safety number 1 priority in lifeguarding

A youth-dominated occupation

Michael Shea, 18, of Cedar Rapids jumps into the water from a lifeguard chair as he performs a water rescue during their preseason lifeguard prevention and action test at Noelridge Aquatic Center in Cedar Rapids on Friday, May. 26, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Michael Shea, 18, of Cedar Rapids jumps into the water from a lifeguard chair as he performs a water rescue during their preseason lifeguard prevention and action test at Noelridge Aquatic Center in Cedar Rapids on Friday, May. 26, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The water on the surface of the Iowa City Park Pool sits nearly still on a Thursday evening in early June.

Lifeguards — some wearing red swimsuits, others in their own swim apparel — line the chairs and picnic tables on the concrete slab closest to the pool entrance.

Two teenagers in bathing suits walk up to the front desk to ask if the pool is open yet. Not yet, two lifeguards reply, Saturday.

The sharp sound of a whistle blows and an upward of 40 lifeguards — or guards, as they sometimes call themselves — assume their positions as part of the annual training the guards partake in ahead of the pool opening. Some jump into the water and others climb into the four guard chairs surrounding the pool — all of this done as part of a routine.

After a few minutes, a guard jumping from the high dive pretends to drown. Within seconds, the sound of a whistle once again spreads across the pool as a signal that a patron is in need of assistance.

Kyle Swenning, 18, of Iowa City, jumps into the water and begins to pull the “drowning” guard out of the water.

Near the high-diving boards, other guards practice CPR on a mannequin. For six minutes, the guards perform CPR in preparation of the arrival of the Iowa City Fire Department to mimic a real-life situation.


This emergency response drill, part of in-service lifeguard training, helps them better develop surveillance skills and a better ability to perform water and land rescues, along with practicing decision-making protocols.

To be a guard

The job of a lifeguard, often mistaken as an opportunity for relaxation, time with friends and sun bathing, is more than just a free visit to the pool.

For Carolyn Hamilton, aquatics supervisor for the Cedar Rapids Parks and Recreation, a guard must have a level of maturity and an ability to focus. A quality needed in all lifeguards, she said, is the understanding of the importance of their work.

“Yes, getting a tan is a neat thing and being with your friends is a neat thing. But you’re sitting up in a chair and you’re taking care of someone else’s little child,” Hamilton said. “And that’s important.”

The responsibility demands an attitude that runs on urgency.

Brandon Koch, a second-year guard, said he first started because a friend recommended it to him.

There are perks to the job, Koch said, such as learning essential lifesaving skills such as CPR, but also feeling a sense of community both with the patrons and other guards while on shift.

After passing his lifeguard certification training last year, Koch was hired at Bever Pool in Cedar Rapids. This summer, Koch was placed at the Cherry Hill Aquatic Center.

Hamilton said she likes to mix the lifeguards’ locations up year to year to ensure her pools are diverse in the lifeguards they hire, keeping in mind age, gender and even neighborhood.


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With about 60 percent of the Cedar Rapids guards in high school and 40 percent in college, patrons more than likely will find a range of 15 year olds to 22 year olds sitting in the lifeguard chair.

But Hamilton drills into her guards and pool managers that an ability to get along with others and good customer serve skills are essential to the position. Safety, however, is their No. 1 priority.

“You have to evaluate (the pool) and if it registers as (someone needing) assistance right away, you’ve got to go,” Hamilton said. “None of this, ‘Now, is he or isn’t he or shall I blow my whistle?’ You go.”

With eight meetings before opening of the pool, Cedar Rapids guards are certified ahead of their individual pool assignments. During the meeting installments, the guards learn about pool specifics and practice aspects of the job that may differentiate each venue based on the facility they are placed.

“They all (the lifeguards) do the same thing, but they have to know how to do it at a different pool,” Hamilton said.

For example, Koch remembers a game often played by the Bever lifeguards to practice technique and skill called “Hungry, Hungry Lifeguard.”

“It’s where all the lifeguards except for one, who is sitting in the chair, are drowning in the deep end,” Koch said. “You have to then run around and get as many out as you can.”

Julie Hennessey, 22, senior at the University of Iowa, has begun her sixth year as a lifeguard and her third summer as a lifeguard with Iowa City Parks and Recreation aquatics as of the training.


Hennessey first started as a guard because she knew she wanted to work outside and always enjoyed swimming, spending many summers at the pool.

“It seemed like the summer job to have,” Hennessey said.

Teaching swim lessons, Hennessey said her job as an instructor focuses on prevention — the aim being to stop the possibility of drowning before it has the opportunity to occur.

“You’d be surprised how many times parents get upset if you don’t pass their kids on the swim test, but we’re like, We think they might not be able to swim in the deep end. Do you want to risk them drowning?” she said.

Hennessey’s biggest tip to patrons, however, is to recognize that the lifeguard is always watching — their keen eyes observing the pool and a sharp whistle, matched with lifeguard certification and constant training, are all in their collection of tools.

“I think people don’t realize how much the lifeguard sees,” Hennessey said. “So people, don’t do anything too weird because the lifeguard is watching.”

Keeping the order

Koch and a fellow guard run up to Hamilton mid-guard training in late May at the Cherry Hill Aquatic Center, a red flotation rescue wrapped around their shoulders and waist.

“Nicely done,” Hamilton said. Koch had just saved someone — two people, actually.

While just a practice scenario, the three joke about the accomplishment.

“Well, you got two hands and you got two feet so you should be able to save four at a time,” Hamilton said.

“Exactly,” Koch said. “You just grab them by your toes.”


Learning new lifesaving techniques, Koch said the American Red Cross updates its lifeguard manual annually to better improve procedures from years past.

Instead of taking two minutes to save a life in the deep end as he learned last year, the change now only takes 30 seconds — all through the position in which the drowning patron is placed on a tube carried by the guard.

“They’re small changes that really help,” Koch said.

Lifeguards are required, according to the American Red Cross, to run through a pre-service evaluation, an annual orientation and training, along with regular in-service training each year.

This is how the order of the pool is kept — through training, watchful eyes and a whistle constantly kept around the guard’s neck.

“If you see something that’s going on, you whistle at them. And if it keeps going on, you keep whistling at them. You also warn them or sit them out,” Koch said. “If they keep doing it, you have a manager deal with them, and depending on it (the situation) they could get kicked out or banned.”

The job, Koch said, is not easy.

“Some people just think we’re getting paid to tan, but you’re really being paid to watch over others people’s lives, and when stuff happens, it’s stressful.

“You have someone’s life on the line.”

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