• Graphic by Tim Bobko

    Credit: TIM BOBKO

Few jobs are as challenging and emotionally rewarding as being an aquatics director. You are teaching young people how to save a life.

Working with them is invigorating, fun and, at times, frustrating. There are days you seriously start to wonder if they're listening. Are they going to remember to tighten the backboard straps enough? Will they remember to call 911?

We all have our favorite things to emphasize during in-services. My pet topic is communication. Every single training, I seem to find myself repeating, “Don’t forget to TALK.”

Rescues are team efforts, and the team members need to communicate clearly with each other. It’s important not to forget the victim. A victim will be scared, may be unable to move or talk, or may be in pain.

With a little bit of luck and a well-trained staff, we’ll never discover if all those pieces of information sank in. But every once in a while, the unthinkable and unpreventable happens, and we discover that those lifeguards we worked so hard with, were really listening.

I wasn’t there to see the training come together for two of my lifeguards, Sarah and Emily (not their real names). They had worked for me for three years before going to college. So they spent a lot of time hearing me say, “Don't forget to talk to each other and the victim.”

During their first year of college, I received an e-mail from Sarah. She and Emily had been spectators at a swimming event when one of the participants decided to do a flip off the side of the pool and hit her head on the gutter. The lifeguards on duty quickly brought her to the side of the pool, but the situation became chaotic. Nobody was talking to each other — nobody went to get the backboard, nobody was controlling the crowd and nobody was giving any directions. On top of it, the victim was panicking because nobody was talking to her either.

Sarah and Emily stepped in — one giving directions to the guards and spectators, and one focusing on, and talking to, the victim. Sarah said it was scary to see the lifeguards forgetting important steps, but it felt great that she knew what to do. She wanted to thank me for making them practice talking during rescues because it had turned out to be enormously important.

Two weeks later, Emily stopped by. She didn’t know Sarah had e-mailed me and proceeded to tell me the story of the backboarding episode. She ended with, “I just had to come tell you ‘thank you’ for the in-service trainings. I didn’t like them at the time, but they really helped. We knew what to do.”

It blew me away. Both of them had truly gotten it. Not just the important basics (yes, the straps were tight and, yes, someone called 911), but that this lifeguard business is about caring for a real person. I have doubled my efforts since then to make every in-service valuable, and to be sure they hear me say, “You HAVE to talk to each other and the victim.”

In-services are tiring for everyone and when you've been an aquatics supervisor for more than a few months, you know you’ve repeated some things over and over. There are times you’re convinced not one of those young lifeguards is listening. I hope you never have the opportunity to find out, but I can tell you from experience, your lessons are getting through and every word is worth it.