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I recently had the thrill and the honor of spending time with Hawaii’s famed Lifeguards, or ‘Watermen’ (and a Texan who paddles faster than I thought humanly possible). It was a truly eye-opening experience for me. When I say ‘lifeguard’ what do you think? Easy job hanging out at the beach getting tan? Free babysitting at the pool? Baywatch? While it’s true that lifeguards seem to have been pulled from the ‘athletic, fit and good-looking’ section of the gene pool, let’s look at what lifeguards really do, and why they should be called Water Safety Professionals and treated with serious respect.
First and foremost, when you swim at a beach or a pool that has a lifeguard, it’s kind of like having a fireman sit in your front yard in case your house should suddenly catch on fire. Roughly 95% of a lifeguard’s job is prevention. The bulk of their job is to educate the public, tell them the safe places to swim, watch for and warn against potentially dangerous or risky behavior and intervene when they see someone getting into trouble. Around 5% of their work is rescuing people. Clearly it doesn’t make any economic sense to plant a fireman in every yard or station a policeman at every corner just in case a crime occurs, but what would happen if lifeguards weren’t on duty whenever anyone is in the water? I’ll use Kaua’i as an example since I was just there and it has some stunning beaches that tourists love. Kaua’i lifeguards had 144,594 public contacts last year (and that means they were polite, helpful and educating the sometimes rude or unappreciative public who took offense at the intervention). There were 75,000 ‘preventive actions’ and 248 rescues – about half of these involving going out on a jet-ski, sometimes several miles from the lifeguard tower and frequently in rough surf. Over an 18-year period there were ‘only’ 165 drownings in Kaua’i. What if the lifeguards weren’t there? What percentage of those 75,000 preventive actions would have resulted in tragedy in just one year? Certainly almost all of those rescues would have resulted in someone dying.
In case you are thinking, ‘yes, but that’s the ocean’ the same concept applies at lakes, pools, anywhere that people want to be swimming. When you see those high-school and college students at the local pool, they may not have to meet the incredible physical requirements that the ocean lifeguards do (dead lifting 500 pounds and holding it, not to mention the sprinting, swimming, and paddling in the surf all while helping a flailing or dead-weight victim), but each and every one of them has been trained to SAVE YOUR LIFE! Do you know CPR? (you should) They do. Can you handle a spinal injury? They can. Do you constantly scan the water looking for potentially dangerous behavior or just someone too still? They do. Do you go to work every day knowing that you could be risking your life to save another person all while your funding is being cut, your salaries reduced and your equipment needs not always being met? They do.
The next time you swim anywhere – pool, lake, or ocean – swim near the lifeguard, don’t go to those ‘remote pristine (unguarded) beaches in the guide book, listen to the warnings, and, please, RESPECT!