Friday, July 01, 2011

Once a Lifeguard...

Because it's true for me, I tend to believe that once a lifeguard, always a lifeguard. At a beach or pool, I scan the water for troubled swimmers, and decades have passed since I did the job for pay.

The dreadful tale of a woman missing in a public pool for most of three days in Massachusetts eats on me. There seems to be a long line of folk wonder how that could happened, specifically how both staff and health inspectors who coincidentally OK'ed the pool during that period did not see a corpse in the deep end.

She arrived with a group of relatives and friends. We can likely set aside how there was no missing person report. She was not living with a spouse or equivalent or young kids. Those who knew her figured she had gone home on her own and did try to get her by phone repeatedly. I doubt anyone thought she might have drowned and her corpse might be under 15 feet of murky water, without any lifeguards or other staff seeing or finding her.

I will be found in that winding queue ready to blame the staff. The management apparently allowed an opaque deep end. The procedures did not apparently require daily cleaning. The lifeguards may have blown off the story of a 9-year-old with the late Marie Joseph, who says he told the guards the woman had gone under the water and not resurfaced.

Like most humanoids, I get personally historical and think of my experience and frame of reference. In every pool I worked, we constantly checked, particularly the deep end. We never left without being positive everyone was safe and out.

Moreover, in a comparable club, Candlewood Swim and Racquet, in Lakewood, NJ, where I worked two summers, the first lifeguard on duty arrived early to skim and clean the whole pool floor. The main pool was L-shaped with a separate diving tank, with 1, 3, and 5-meter boards. The tank end was very deep.

Our manager was Les Hashey, who was a champion diver, as well as one of the Band of Brothers. He had great fun with kerosene and diving (see link). He also insisted that we keep the filters working perfectly and maintain all the water from the separate, shallow wading pool, to the long lap one to the diving tank perfect clear.

In Fall River, the guards may well have followed pool procedure. If so, it stank...fatally. There's no excuse for an opaque, or "murky" as the inspectors had it, deep end. If someone reports a missing swimmer, you locate that person, even if it means clearing the pool and searching.

I was a tough lifeguard and did not allow dunking, diving toward swimmers and such. Even so, I had to pull out people over their abilities, those paralyzed with cramps, and the occasional pass-out. I can't imagine how many more there would have been without strict water-safety hygiene.

I'll watch for the follow-up reports on this. If I were involved in the investigation, I'd come in with a long list of questions. Poor Ms. Joseph may well have been dead by the time anyone could have gotten to her — drowning doesn't take long and asphyxiation often kills the brain and heart quickly — but likewise, quick action in a clear pool might have made it possible to save her.

We still have many thousands of drownings a year in the United States. That bothers this old lifeguard mightily.

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