The idea a lifeguard may conjure images of hunky guys and bikini-clad girls working summer jobs and soaking up the sun on the beach. But the truth is our area lifeguards are seasoned athletes, expert swimmers and highly trained and certified in life saving procedures. They are more than just the guardians of our safety in and out of the water, they are the guardians of our vacation fun and treasured ‘beach day’ memories.
Every day the sun is shining, there are scores of beachgoers enjoying the sand and surf. Their safety falls squarely in the shoulders of these lifeguards who monitor the water and diligently watch for any danger that lurks beneath the surface. While many think of sharks, the biggest hazard to swimmers is the rip current, which can pull a swimmer out to sea.
“Half of our rescues and assists occur during the months of March and April”, explained Nathan Rieck, Captain of the City of Vero Beach lifeguards. “The prevailing southeast winds in the spring create stronger rip currents and there aren’t as many swimmers in the water. Northern visitors frequent the beach in the winter months but few venture into the surf”.
Rip currents account for over 80% of rescues performed by surf beach lifeguards. The greatest safety precaution that can be taken is to recognize the danger of rip currents and always swim at beach with lifeguards. The United States Lifesaving Association has calculated the chance that a person will drown while attending a beach protected by USLA affiliation lifeguards at 1 in 18 million. But when swimming in an unguarded beach how you respond can be the difference between life and death.
Another commonly overlooked danger is the shore break. “People love to body surf and they don’t account for the wave breaking so close the shore” continued Rieck. “The force of a wave crashing against the sand can easily break bones, scrape skin and in the worse case scenario snap someone’s neck, It’s our job as lifeguards to educate the public about those dangers and prevent a tragedy from happening. Fortunately, the state has taken the lead in educating the public about water conditions and rip currents. Signs are posted at each guarded beach explaining the meaning of the colored flag we are flying and instructions on what to do if caught in a rip current.”
Of course, there’s no better safety precaution than watching out for each other on the beach and in the surf. Parents need to be ever vigilant with their children as they play in the water. The guards will often descend from the tower and walk the beach talking to the visitors. They may warn them not to touch the pretty blue man-o-wars with the wicked sting, or to be aware of the severe drop off at the shoreline. They offer minor first aid for cuts, jellyfish stings or sunburn and often act as local ambassadors offering suggestions on where to buy sunscreen or where to eat after a day at the beach.
When a lifeguard sees a person in distress he first assesses the situation before hitting the water. Often times a swimmer is able to navigate the current easily swim back in on his own accord. With two guards in each tower a rescue is a team effort with one guard taking the plunge while the other keeps his eyes focused on the swimmer. Both assist in bringing the swimmer on shore and administering any lifesaving measures. All guards have first responder medical training as EMTs and are certified by the United States Lifeguard Association. The City and County provide emergency backup.
Being a lifeguard is not a summer job…it’s a lifetime commitment.
“Our guards are experienced career guards,” said John Frazier, Captain of the IRC lifeguards. “I’ve been here for 28 years myself. We recruit guards with experience and all the certifications in place. We have guards ranging in age from 19 to 62.” Indian River County and the City of Vero combined employ 19 full-time lifeguards and 15 part-time guards. Both male and female applicants are welcome though males still outnumber the females. “Most of us do it for the love of the ocean and the desire to help others” continued Frazier. “I’ve been doing some sort of life guarding since I was 14 years old.”
Johnathan Billings chose the profession because he didn’t want to be in an office setting. “I couldn’t see myself in some cubicle, it’s being in a box. Of course, as a life guard I actually do sit in a box all day.” he laughs. “Fact is, I love the ocean and it’s my life. It runs though my veins. And being able to assist others is the greatest job ever. What other office has a view like this?”
“I’ve lived by the ocean all my life and I belong here. The water is my home. I love to share my knowledge of the sea and keep people safe.” Kayla Stevens, lifeguard
Lifeguards in Training
Indian River County has been offering a Junior Lifeguard Program for 27 years and has trained local children how to handle themselves and others in the water, even if they don’t choose it as a career. The goal of the program is to provide the youth of our community with a sound aquatic background and acquaint them with the hazards and opportunities of our beaches while exposing them to an environment that will teach courtesy, respect and good sportsmanship. Assistance with career development to those who are seeking employment as a lifeguard is also offered. “Honestly, every child in Florida should have this training” explained Frazier. “After all, we are literally surrounded by water and you never know when someone close to you may need assistance.”
There are three; 2-week sessions offered each summer for children ages 9-17. Applicants must be able to swim 100 yards and run ¾ of a mile without stopping. Each day starts with a mile run and is followed by beach drills and water safety training supervised by county lifeguards. But the program does more than just teach lifesaving skills. It teaches life lessons. Ryan Giulianotti has been in the Junior Lifeguard program for 5 years and is one of the junior captains. When asked what he has learned this young teen gave an inspiring response: “I learned how to be a humble leader and to respect my fellow junior lifeguards”. While he may or not pursue life guarding as a full-time profession he believes he will utilize his life guarding skills throughout his adult life.
For more information about the Junior Lifeguard Program contact the IRC Recreation Dept at www.ircrec.com or call 772-388-4492