It’s a Sunday afternoon at the Iola-Scandinavia Community Fitness & Aquatic Center and four lifeguards sit in their respective chairs.
A swimmer jumps off of the diving board and there’s trouble.
The lifeguard at the deep end of the pool springs into action. Blowing his whistle, communicating with the other lifeguards and entering the water, the rescue happens quickly. The other three lifeguards respond as well: clearing the pool, getting a backboard, calling 911 and more.
The situation may be alarming to some, but not on this day. Today is just practice.
“We create like-real situations that they may have to deal with,” facility director Molly Vold said. “We have actors pretend to break rules, like running, so they can practice enforcing rules. We also do scenarios such as a diving board accident with the classic possibility for a spinal injury.”
This is only part of their training.
Each lifeguard must complete a 25-hour Red Cross lifeguarding course prior to employment. According to the American Red Cross, the purpose of this course is to provide participants with the knowledge and skills to prevent, recognize and respond to aquatic emergencies; and provide care for breathing and cardiac emergencies, injuries and sudden illnesses until emergency medical services personnel take over.
Certification requirements include attending and participating in all class sessions; demonstrating competency in all required skills and activities; demonstrating competency in all rescue skill scenarios; and passing the CPR/AED for the Professional Rescuer, First Aid and Lifeguarding Skills final written exams with a minimum grade of 80 percent.
Vold teaches the course at the center.
“Over the years, I have trained approximately 150 lifeguards,” she said. “I usually offer it once a year, but this year I had inquiries for a class in the fall, so I decided I’d try a winter class.”
Vold also provides continuing education.
“We try to do in-service as often as possible,” she said. “At the beginning of every summer, a majority of the lifeguards participate in a weeklong in-service. During this time, we pretty much do the lifeguard class again. From this, anyone who needs to be recertified is done.
“Additional training happens when I have college kids home this winter break,” she added. “I have them lead mandatory skill and scenario practice in the evening for all the high school lifeguards. Because high school kids are so busy with school, sports, band, chorus and so many other things, this was a good time to get them together.”
“The training is never ending,” said Karina Welch, one of the head lifeguards.
“We do mock drills and practice different scenarios of what could happen,” said Devin Paulson, a lifeguard for four years. “We practice CPR, go over our emergency action plan and practice using a backboard.”
Paulson is referring to what most of the lifeguards know as the Lifeguard Game.
“It’s a great way to train us and keep us sharp,” Morgen Spees said.
Another lifeguard, Brooke Phillips, agreed.
“During the Lifeguard Game, there’s so much going on and you get to practice all of your skills at once,” she said.
“The lifeguards are able to be the victim,” Welch said. “This allows us to understand what someone in that situation would look like and be acting like. One of the most important things about the game is the discussion at the end. We are all able to contribute our opinions and fix any problems. Everyone benefits.”
The center’s current lifeguard staff includes 24 high school students, 13 college students and six adults.
So how do the teenagers handle their job?
“Maturely,” Vold said. “They know what they are getting into and they do their job.” “I take my job very seriously,” Paulson said. “You have to.”
The lifeguards all agreed the job is not easy.
“The hardest part is not knowing,” Welch said. “You never know when a child may slip and fall or someone is going to go under. No matter how closely a lifeguard pays attention, there is no stopping a child from getting swept away from the current of the slide or freezing up when they go off the diving board. For every minute that passes, a new obstacle can be thrown in your direction.”
“You are constantly making sure everyone is safe and not doing anything that could cause harm to themselves or others,” Tristan Klepps said.
“When there are large groups of kids visiting the facility, it really keeps us on our toes,” Paulson.
“Lifeguarding is certainly not for everyone,” Welch said. “The training is physically and mentally demanding. Everything you learn will need to be applied sometime in your career. A lifeguard may never have to perform CPR, but they must always know how to in case a situation comes along where it is needed. The saving techniques alter or completely change from year to year and a lifeguard must stay up-to-date on the best way to save a life. Lifeguarding is more than sitting in a red chair with a tube.”
“Lifeguarding takes a lot of concentration and focus,” Phillips said. “It’s definitely not for everyone.”
There are some things Vold looks for in a lifeguard.
“They must be able to swim correctly: rotary breathing, face in water, not lifting their head,” she said. “I like when they are reliable and good managers of their time. It’s very rewarding to watch a shy, awkward high school sophomore get trained as a lifeguard and by the time they are a senior, they’ve developed into a leader.”
Several of the lifeguards have already participated in active rescues.
“Usually, the guards have to jump in to grab a struggling child at the bottom of the slide or the deep end after going off the diving board,” Vold said. “They handle these situations great and I think they are really proud of themselves after these types of rescues.
“Many years ago, we had a seizure on deck and the lifeguard responded immediately to take care of her,” she added. “We also had a broken leg on the pool deck in which the ambulance was called. Again, the staff did great. Knock on wood, we have been serious accident-free.
“I’ve had to make two rescues so far,” Klepps said. “The first one was a young boy who couldn’t swim very well and decided to jump off the diving board. The second (was) a young girl who didn’t wait for her mom at the top of the slide. I felt like Superman after I rescued them.”
“You don’t really think about it, you just do it,” Paulson said. “From all the training, it becomes second nature. You just react to the situation.”
“I am a lifeguard,” Welch said. “I’m trained to save people.”