It looks easy. Work on your tan while perched on a poolside chair. Chat with friends. Blow your whistle a few times.
That may be the public perception of lifeguards. It’s hardly reality.
Life as a lifeguard is anything but easy. There are more than 100 kids on any given day that must carefully be watched. The unforgiving summer sun beats down on your body, zapping your energy and challenging your ability to focus. There are bugs to clear out of the water, decks and bathrooms to clean and concessions to be sold.
Above everything else, lifeguards must provide safety. They go through 36 hours of rigorous training both in the classroom and pool just to become eligible for the position, then regularly use those skills to save lives.
“The lifeguards understand their responsibility and they take it seriously,” said Jeri Welch, pool manager. “We haven’t had a serious injury at the pool for several years now, and I think it’s due to the quality of lifeguards and the amount of training they get.”
There are 13 teenagers who share shifts this summer at the Houston Municipal Swimming Pool. The veterans – like Lexie Malam, who is a lifeguard for the third year – work four times per week. Newcomers are on duty twice a week. Each shift is 6-8 hours. Every 60 minutes during a shift, lifeguards switch positions from one of three chairs to the concession stand.
Most of the lifeguards are longtime members of the swimming team and feel at home in the water. Many have dived in at least once to rescue a panicked swimmer.
“It’s a huge sense of responsibility,” said lifeguard Trezha Malam. “It’s your job to make sure everyone is OK, whether they are in the pool or not.”
Not just anyone can be a lifeguard. To even be eligible for the position, a person must swim 300 yards – six laps around the pool – nonstop. Four of the laps are swam freestyle, the other two breaststroke. The next test involves swimming 20 yards, diving 10 feet to pick up a 10-pound brick, and swimming backwards with the brick on your chest and only using your feet to kick.
Toni McKinney, who trains lifeguards, said most of her swim team members breeze through the requirements. Others don’t. She said football players have told her the exercise is the most difficult thing they’ve ever done.
Once the swimming tests are met, it’s into the classroom for 36 hours of training that includes three written tests. Lifeguards must pass a first-aid course and CPR for the professional rescuerer with at least an 80 percent.
McKinney, a former lifeguard herself, teaches everything from avoiding hazardous situations – being aware of new swimmers or those struggling – to handling spinal injuries. She shows many hours of videos and even conducts a water rescue.
Although a life-saving situation presents itself occasionally, especially when summer schools with students who don’t know how to swim visit, McKinney emphasizes “secondary responsibilities” like checking filters and cleaning the facilities.
Many times, parents leave their children unattended at the pool. McKinney remembers a situation when one family was dropped off at the pool daily without money for snacks or sunblock.
“We’re the cheapest babysitters in town,” McKinney said. “A lot of people drop their kids off here and expect lifeguards to take care of them.”
Most accidents around the pool involve minor injuries like kids falling and scrapping their knees. But there are more serious situations. Lexie Malam said she has made seven “saves” in three years. Trezha Malam made her first this year when a child who didn’t know how to swim jumped off the low dive.
Kendra Welch, a first-year lifeguard, hasn’t been forced to save someone yet. But she knows even the smallest corrections at the pool are important.
“You can’t be afraid to blow your whistle and get onto kids because it really does prevent injuries,” she said.
Jeri Welch said this year’s group of lifeguards is one of the best she’s had at keeping the pool safe.
“Safety has to be their No. 1 priority,” she said. “It’s hard when they are sometimes distracted by discipline issues at the pool, but every time they blow that whistle there is a reason why, and it has to do with safety.”