Lifeguards to test skills in competition


Eighty lifeguards participating in a regional competition Monday in Columbia had better be able to do more than flex their muscles.

Individual and team skills in deep water rescue, spinal injury management and cardiopulmonary resuscitation will be tested in the daylong event.

The competition begins at 9 a.m. Monday at the new Kendall Ridge pool in the Village of Long Reach, with the Columbia Association (CA) as host. It is sponsored by Ellis and Associates' National Pool and Waterpark Lifeguard Training Program.

The public may attend at no charge, but they won't see a typical lifeguard contest with swimming relays, volleyball games and tugs-of-war.

"Those events are totally unrelated to lifeguarding," said competition coordinator Jim Wheeler, of San Ramon, Calif., who developed the event three years ago.

"People were winning and saying they were the best lifeguards. But it was really a fake sense of what they were and what their agency was. Those competitions are speed events.

"All of our events are specific to lifeguard events used daily. Strength and speed are important, but skill and technique are everything. Being the fastest lifeguard doesn't make the best lifeguard. Managing the event properly -- having skills like deep water rescue and CPR to take care of someone correctly -- is much more important."

The CA's lifeguards at its 23 village pools and Town Center boat dock are licensed by the Texas-based Ellis training program.

"The competition is a great way to get feedback on how well trained and skilled our lifeguards are and to share ideas," said Jon Wray, the Columbia Association supervisor of lifeguard training who is this year's event director.

Two dozen of CA's 200 lifeguards will compete Monday. Mr. Wray said yesterday that the roster was still undecided. "We're looking for efficiency and creativity in problem-solving skills," said Mr. Wray, 25, of Columbia.

Jeff Freimanis, 23, hopes to be among the lifeguards chosen to compete. "Skills have to be clean and crisp," said the Kendall Ridge pool manager. "They take the top from each pool. It's a privilege to be entered."

Those chosen will join lifeguards from elsewhere in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia to compete in five individual events of active and passive rescues including deep water rescue. In a passive rescue, for instance, lifeguards might have to perform the Heimlich maneuver to remove an obstruction in swimmer's airway, then CPR.

The two team events include a problem-solving event and a backboard rescue where a spinal injury victim requires five rescuers.

The northeastern regional competition is one of seven events across the country designed to test skills learned in the Ellis program.

The event grew from four regional competitions last year and will go national next year when winners from each region will compete against one another.

Jeffrey Ellis developed his lifeguard program 12 years ago in response to the growth of water parks. The need for better rescue methods arose because water slides, wave pools and "lazy rivers," where people float in tubes, posed more safety hazards and rescue challenges than those found at the neighborhood swimming pool.

"People were drowning at a high rate because lifeguard programs had been developed only for flat water pools," said Mr. Wheeler, 34.

"We designed a program for water parks that snowballed into better rescue techniques for swimming pools. Now we have more municipal pools than water parks."

With its 600 client facilities and 20,000 trained lifeguards, the tTC Ellis program has grown second in size only to the American Red Cross lifeguard training program.

While the Red Cross gives a three-year lifeguard certificate in addition to annual CPR certification, the Ellis program awards a one-year license for both.

"If those lifeguarding skills are not maintained, the license will be suspended," Mr. Wheeler said. "The Red Cross certificate is good for three years, whether those skills are practiced or not."

Ellis lifeguards, who also use such rescue equipment as flexible tubes, are required to train four hours a month. They are also subject to random audits three times per season. "We find they maintain their skills more," said Mr. Wheeler.

Inspectors secretly videotape the lifeguards' crowd-scanning techniques to see how carefully they observe swimmers, the number of lifeguards per pool and how well they rotate shifts and maintain surveillance during rotation.

They also check the lifeguards' uniform of umbrella and sunglasses.

"We look at their professionalism and surveillance. They have to look at the water all the time," Mr. Wheeler said.

Although in past years auditors would fake a drowning to test rescue and CPR skills, they now introduce themselves after the videotaping and ask the lifeguards to perform a rescue on each other.

How do CA lifeguards stack up? This season, they qualified to be in the top Gold Elite Range after receiving a 98 percent rating this month and a 96 percent rating in June.

The Columbia Association will be the host of the Northeast Regional Lifeguard Competition from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday at the Kendall Ridge Pool, 8245 Tamar Drive, Columbia. The public may attend at no charge. Information: 312-6332.

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