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"Web feet are not a necessity," jokes Audrey Michetti. But if you want to volunteer as a lifeguard with the YMCA or any other pool or beach in North America, you better be prepared to show your certification is up to date.

"The YMCA uses a large number of volunteers through the whole facility. Lifeguarding and swimming instructors are always a little tricky because of the qualifications required," admits Michetti, aquatics manager at the YMCA.

In the United States, lifeguards are certified by the American Red Cross.

Among other things, lifeguards can recognize an aquatic emergency and act promptly and appropriately. They are trained to perform rescues and care for a possible spinal injury as well as provide first aid and CPR. They are also on hand to answer questions and generally ensure people are having good safe fun in and around the water.

Rick Gould of the United States Lifesaving Association says, "The majority of the membership of USLA are paid professional lifeguards at government agencies, typically at beaches. It would be hard to guess, but it would be safe to say of the 5,000-plus line membership, most probably have volunteered a least once a year for some reason or another."

"Eighty percent of a lifeguard's job is PR [public relations] and customer service," says Scott Graf of Athan's Aquatic Center.

Since lifeguards require such a high skill level, most communities have to pay them. "And once you start paying people, it's hard to ask them to do it for free," says Paul D'eon, member of a lifeguard service.

But some facilities depend on volunteers. "We use both paid and volunteer lifeguards," says Myrna Johnson with Kamp K.A.C.E. in Vergas, Minnesota.

Fred Pretty with the Wabush Recreation Center says it takes 40 to 50 people to run his fitness and aquatics programs. They are all volunteers except for him and two other supervisors. "In exchange, we keep them current on training, and we'll cover the costs per course," says Pretty.

"I get free swimming for my family and free lessons for my kids, and it helps me keep in shape," says Wabush volunteer lifeguard and swim instructor Irene Rogers. She says even people without lifeguard certification can be extra eyes and ears for the lifeguards.

"Some of the kids volunteer as lifeguard assistants. If you've got three to four guards and 70 people in the pool, those people are used as back-up."

Fifteen-year old Steve Ginsburg volunteered at his community pool for four years before being hired as a lifeguard. "I felt at the time it was the best way to get experience as a lifeguard and find out if it was an area I wanted to be in," he explains.

Long periods of watching and waiting, with potential moments of life and death drama. That's how 17-year-old volunteer Jeff Wells describes a typical afternoon at his community pool.

"When nothing is happening it's sort of like watching a kettle boil," he explains. "There's not a lot of interaction, and you can't really do anything besides lifeguarding. That would mean taking your eyes off the pool itself."

Wells says he's helped out on one pool rescue that was "nothing major", but mostly he finds himself keeping an eye on people and making sure not too many rules are getting broken.

"The most fun thing is when I actually get in and help out someone with their swimming -- one on one. That way you get to see them go ahead. And they usually give you a good smile and say thanks!" he says.

Rogers agrees that swim lessons are one of the most rewarding parts of her volunteer service.

"Twelve and 13 year olds, they're groups who appreciate it so much more," she explains. "They'll say, 'At last, I got the front crawl or whip kick!'"

Rogers says her lifeguard shifts require her to be ready to do everything from finding a Band-Aid or reaching device to keeping emergency exits and wheelchair access to the bathrooms clear.

"I'm always watching out for visitors, or people unfamiliar with the pool," she says. "There is so much, so many things that just come so natural. It's part of the training."

Patrick Stone says that training kicked in for him during a dramatic open water rescue. Stone, 23, is a lifeguard for Kamp K.A.C.E. -- a camp for kids with cancer. Sometimes he's paid, other times he volunteers. Paid or not, Stone says he feels the same responsibility.

"Sometimes when you're giving your time you get more out of it, but sadly enough that's not true when you're lifeguarding. It's a job that always has to be taken seriously."

Stone remembers one volunteer weekend in particular. "We had a fishing day, where we had the Lion's Club come in with their boats and take the kids out." Stone says one boat struck another and dumped the driver and two small passengers into the lake.

Stone and another lifeguard saw it all from shore. The engine in their aluminium rescue boat wouldn't start and Stone was just preparing to swim when another boater close to shore picked them up.

"We got there and it was nearly a Baywatch scene, " he says. "They all had lifejackets and the driver was floating fine, but the little girls were really upset. We dived in and did a cross-chest carry for each of them and pulled them into the boat."

Everyone was OK in the end, but Stone says it was an important lesson. "Water safety wasn't the first thing on everyone's mind that day, but it's always [the] first thing on a lifeguard's mind."

How to Get Involved

If you are interested in volunteering as a lifeguard, chances are you already know the number of your community pool because of all the swimming lessons you've taken over the years. Call and ask what you can do. Even without your lifeguard certification, you may qualify to volunteer as a swim instructor or junior lifeguard.

In many areas -- particularly communities with extensive beaches -- junior lifeguard programs are used as apprentice training programs for future lifeguards.

"We use it as a recruitment training ground," says D'eon. He estimates half the students he hires to patrol beaches each summer have come from the ranks of junior lifeguards.

In the United States, junior lifeguard programs cost about $300, although scholarships are available. The programs teach water safety, first aid techniques, build self-confidence and help prepare interested youths for work as lifeguards.

"Volunteering is a way to break that vicious cycle of they won't hire you without experience, but you can't get experience unless they hire you," says Stone. "Say 'fine!' and go work for free."


The United States Lifesaving Association
All you ever wanted to know about professional lifeguarding, including junior lifeguard programs

American Red Cross
Check out the amount of lessons and information required before you can even take your lifeguard examinations

California Junior Lifeguard Programs
Learn more about lifeguarding skills

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