When we talk about safety at sea, a lot of things come to the mind – safety equipment, safety culture, personal life-safety devices, etc. However, we often tend to overlook the most important resource in saving lives on coasts and rivers, our lifeguards. Lifeguards play a huge role in preventing people from drowning by taking prompt and decisive action in times of emergency.
Looking at their bravery and determination, one wonders how they are trained for it. For instance, if they see a person flailing in the water from some distance off, how do they decide what action needs to be taken? It requires a great deal of willpower and a sharp mind to make these decisions, especially when lives are hanging in the balance. Consequently, we shall take a look at the different types of lifeguards, the way lifeguards are trained in India, as well as their duties and responsibilities.
History and Types of Lifeguards
The history of lifesaving begins from just 300 years ago. China’s Chinkiang Association for the Saving of Life founded in 1708 was known to be the first group that resembled a life-saving organization. It is impossible for us to conceive such a notion now, but there was initially a lot of resistance against saving lives from drowning because people believed that they ought not to interfere with “nature’s will”. As a matter of fact, rescuing and reviving a drowning person was considered highly unlucky!
Over time, these prejudices were gradually overcome and today, we see that life-saving has become a noble, if underrecognized, profession. As the art of life-saving and the technology involved improved, there came in place several rules and regulations as well as mandates about the must-have equipment used by lifeguards. Similarly, the level of training, proficiency, and experience became the basis for deciding the types of lifeguards.
Lifeguards are now categorized by the areas operation for which they have been certified. Generally speaking, lifeguards work at swimming pools, water parks, river/seafront, and surf stations. Military specialists operating for the rescue and provision of medical aid are known as rescue swimmers and they are a specialized branch of lifeguards.
Lifeguards at swimming pools are expected to be familiar with the basic life-saving processes and trained to provide CPR/AED and first-aid in times of emergency. Waterpark lifeguards are also trained along similar lines. Waterfront lifeguards are expected to be able to swim longer distances and operate in open, non-surf locations. Lifeguards operating along the sea and surfing locations are by far the most trained and proficient in identifying victims as well as rescuing and reviving them.
Let us now take a look at the responsibilities of the lifeguards.
Responsibilities of Lifeguards
The primary responsibility of a lifeguard is to ensure that no harm comes to the people under his/her protection at the waterbody where he/she operates, through word, look, and action. They are also expected to make the people aware of any dangers that might be lurking in the waterbody, the precautionary measures to be taken before descending into the waterbody, and the ways in which they can attract the attention of the lifeguards and the basic steps for survival in times of emergency.
There are several other duties and responsibilities of lifeguards, some of which are mentioned as follows:
Enforce rules and regulations
Lifeguards are expected to enforce the laws and regulations of the the organization, owner, state, and country as pertaining to water bodies. For instance, carrying alcohol out to sea is not allowed by law. Lifeguards should enforce these rules to prevent accidents and injuries.
Perform regular safety checks for equipment
While operating on ships, boats, and along the waterbody, lifeguards should regularly check the safety equipment, such as lifejackets, lifebuoys, whistles, etc. that is provided to the people and ensure that it is in working order.
Vigilant observation of the area
Lifeguards are not meant to only save a life in danger, they are expected to anticipate the danger before it even comes up and accordingly take action to prevent the same. For instance, there has been a rapid increase in the last few years, in the cases of smuggling, suicides, etc., along water bodies. Lifeguards have to vigilantly observe the area under their control for signs of such potential cases and actively work to prevent them.
Patrolling and supervision of dangerous water-sports
Lifeguards are expected to patrol their respective areas and ensure that people stay safe at all times. In the case of dangerous water sports such as surfing or water-skiing, they have to stay on-site and be proactive about safeguarding human life.
Provide immediate first-aid in emergency cases
Lifeguards are trained to provide first-aid and medication in case of emergencies. Not only are they familiar with CPR and different rescue techniques, they are also responsible for helping the victim psychologically, using trauma management principles.
Help in keeping the premises of the waterbody clean
Apart from saving human lives, one of the main responsibilities of lifeguards is to keep the water body and its surroundings perfectly clean. They are authorized to enforce rules of cleanliness amongst the visiting public and take care that no one litters the place. The increase in pollution of marine ecosystems is one of the principal reasons why this duty needs to be taken seriously by lifeguards.
Some of their other duties include participating in aquatic meetings to enhance their knowledge of lifesaving processes and keep implementing those techniques to improve themselves.
Let us now see what the actual training of lifeguards involves.
The Training Process
In the course of training, the lifeguard is introduced to several new concepts. It is not as simple as jumping into the water and swimming out to the person in need of help. A lifeguard has to be a fast-decision maker and be able to understand the gravity of the situation at a glance. This complete process includes training in the following fields.
The first and the most important branch of a lifeguard’s training programme covers physical fitness and strength. Being physically strong is important because it directly impacts their ability to rescue people, especially in open seas and rivers.
Lifeguards are trained to swim long distances, speedily and accurately for conducting successful rescues. In swim training, they are taught to focus on stroke length and breathing, as both are important for long-distance swimming. Stamina and endurance are necessary attributes that can be developed only with regular exercise. Consequently, lifeguards have to workout in addition to swimming exercises to build up endurance.
Rowing is another important and mandatory skill that lifeguards have to internalize. Even today, in the age of motorboats, rowing is an important and functional exercise. Rowing builds cardiovascular endurance and upper body strength, which are must for lifeguards.
In the course of training, lifeguards often combine exercises to build strength, such as row-swim or swim-run techniques. These compound exercises push them to use more than one set of muscles at a time, developing the total strength of the body.
A sharp mind in a fit body is important for a lifeguard. As the physical training is important for lifeguards, so is the psychological aspect of life-saving important. One of the major problems lifeguards face is that of boredom. Long stretches of patrolling can result in extended boredom which in turn impacts vigilance. Lifeguards are trained to counter such problems and keep alert at all times.
Another aspect of the psychological training involved is the ability to offer post-trauma relief to the victim. In the unfortunate event of a near-drowning incident, the person is distressed by his close shave with death and is prone to post-traumatic shock or hysteria. Lifeguards are trained to offer psychological support in such cases by soothing the person and helping them realize that they are safe and secure.
Lifeguards are also trained to work in teams, especially when there are large areas to be covered such as long coastlines. This involves training in team exercises, codependent rescue operations, and working in harmony for successful life-saving operations.
Safety Equipment training
All lifeguards are trained to use life-saving equipment efficiently and also to teach people how to use the same. The use of lifejackets for non-swimmers, provision of flotation tubes and lifebuoys, as well as use of AEDs in case of required resuctication are some of the primary types of safety equipment handled by lifeguards.
Apart from the stereotypical emergency whistle that alerts patrons to a potential mishap in the water, lifeguards are also equipped with rescue tubes, backboards, and ring buoys to save the drowning person. The other personal protective equipment that is constantly carried by lifeguards includes breathing barriers, disposable, non-latex gloves, protective goggles, and emergency oxygen.
There have been a large number of drowning instances in India lately, especially in the rainy season. We often hear news about youths being swept away due to treacherous undercurrents, when they are out for a picnic in the monsoon. That these accidents occur on a large part due to the carelessness of the people involved is true but, nevertheless, lifeguards operating in these areas can make a significant difference in protecting their lives.
In Maharashtra, especially, the number of lifeguards working on beaches or at pools and water-sport clubs is far less than the actual number of lifeguards required. This severe shortage of lifeguards has galvanized many non-profit organizations such as the Rashtriya Life-Saving Society, India to train and post lifeguards in potentially hazardous locations.
Every life is precious and a split-second’s decision can change the course it takes forever. It is thanks to our lifeguards that we are able to enjoy ourselves at waterparks or on beaches. Hence, it is our responsibility to ensure that we respect them and listen to their advice.