The flailing swimmers and prone bodies at the Steven's Forest Pool this week were just pretending, but roughly 70 lifeguards seeking recertification treated them seriously by jumping into the water, hauling the "victims" out on boards and going through the motions of administering CPR.
The Columbia Association is preparing to open 23 outdoor pools for the summer tomorrow, and is stressing "practice, practice, practice" for its approximately 350 lifeguards, said Keith Gilbreath, assistant aquatics director. "We need to do it so it becomes second nature."
The guards, who are mostly high school and college students, will spend the next few months keeping an eye of thousands of swimmers of all ages. In the past, Columbia Association pools have had as many as 600,000 visits to its outdoor pools between May and September.
Along with lounge chairs, wading pools and umbrellas, a few pools have water slides and play equipment. The Swansfield pool is scheduled to open a "giant" water slide in June, said Gilbreath.
The association also offers water-based fitness classes and swimming lessons.
To prepare, the lifeguards had classroom instruction earlier in the week and a 50-question written test in addition to the rescue drills.
During the swimming season, they will receive at least four hours of review training each month and they will be audited by an independent lifeguard certification company.
That training does become ingrained, said Caitlin Ryan, 20, of Ellicott City.
"The first year, I definitely was a little nervous, but management helps you out," she said. Now in her fifth year as a lifeguard "I feel like at this point you just know what to do."
Ryan, a junior political science major at Susquehanna University, said she is drawn back to the job in part by "the confidence and skill you learn lifeguarding. ... It's being able to respond to any situation and problem solving and trouble shooting."
Kristen Groves, 20, of Columbia said, "It's the people, the atmosphere, the co-workers and the money, of course."
In her seventh year as a lifeguard, Groves will be supervisor at the Supreme Sports Club indoor pool and the association's outdoor lessons supervisor. She started after participating in summer swim leagues for many years and being told by her coach she should consider the job.
She said each year she looks forward to a competition in which all of the association lifeguards form teams and perform rescue and cardiopulmonary resuscitation techniques against each other. "It's a really big deal," she said. "People get pretty competitive."
The job has its challenges, said Jimmy Johnston, 20, of Ellicott City, who is starting his sixth summer as a lifeguard. There are sunburn, dehydration and weeks of Maryland humidity along with rowdy children and cleaning duties.
But Johnston, a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, said there are still rewards. "You're not stuck in an office or indoors, that's a big one," he said. "Most of the patrons are pretty nice," and the staff get to be "like a little family."
Across the country, it has become more difficult for the growing number of pools and water attractions to hire lifeguards, Gilbreath said. Compared to working in retail or restaurants, the pay is lower and the responsibility is greater.
The Columbia Association pays between $7 and $9 an hour depending on age and experience, an amount Gilbreath said is comparable to other employers in the industry. He said that will need to change if the association wants to continue to attract skilled employees.
He also said the association is fortunate, because many young people who start out in Columbia swim classes go on to join the swim team and then progress to lifeguarding. The local connection helps attract most of the 120 to 150 new lifeguards the association hires each year.
Brennan Love of Ellicott City started working as a lifeguard in 2003 and will be the lifeguard manager at the Columbia Swim Center this summer while on break from St. Mary's College of Maryland.
He said he started swimming as an infant in Long Reach village and someone suggested the lifeguard job when he was a teenager in need of some cash.
He said lifeguarding seemed appealing compared to traditional part-time jobs. "It was something that did have a bit of responsibility, something that made a difference," he said. "It requires a lot of focus and a lot of vigilance."
Columbia Association Outdoor Pools
Number of outdoor pools: 23
Opening day: Tomorrow, noon.
Admission: Free for association members; $8 for adults, and $5 for children who are association residents but not members.
Memberships: Pool memberships are available for residents and nonresidents at www.ColumbiaPools.com, or 410-730-1801.
Holidays: Pools will be open from noon to 7 p.m. on Memorial Day and July 4.
Information: http:--www.columbiaassociation.com/livin g_playing/sports_fitness/facilities/outdoor_pools.htm, or 410-312-6332.