Lifeguard duty means more than just tanning poolside
Being a lifeguard in The Woodlands does not mean a summer spent working on a tan, relaxing in a chair and periodically scanning the pool.
"It's actually the furthest thing from that," lifeguard TaylorRay said. "This is a serious job."
The 16 year-old is one of 315 lifeguards who were hired to serve in the Township's aquatics program this summer.
Since safety is a top priority in the area's 13 pools, the lifeguards are all expected to stay on their toes.
Ray, who is spending her first summer working as a lifeguard, said she was surprised by how much work and responsibility her poolside job requires.
She explained that lifeguards are involved with all aspects of pool maintenance and customer service.
They also are constantly developing and practicing safety skills, and working on different drills and training exercises.
"We get tested at least a couple of times a week," she said. "A lot of people don't know that about our job, but we have to always be prepared in case something happens."
Choosing a summer job
Ray said she decided to become a lifeguard because her older brother worked as one and now serves as a zone coordinator.
"My brother loved it and all his friends loved it," she said. "This is pretty much the only job I wanted to do. The hours are so flexible, and you learn so much."
Caroline Pierce has been working as a lifeguard for six summers.
"I started because I needed a summer job, and I enjoy being outside," she said.
Pierce now works as a zone coordinator, managing the zone supervisors and lifeguards.
Pierce is in charge of visiting the pools and auditing the lifeguards. "I'm making sure the lifeguards know what they're doing," she said.
John McGowan, who serves as the aquatics superintendent for The Woodlands Township, also started as a lifeguard while he attended high school in the area.
"It's a great first job," McGowan said. "You build skills for your future, from handling money to customer service to managing people."
McGowan now oversees the operation of the area's 13 pools, as well as the aquatic programs like swim team and swimming lessons. He also manages the Riva Row Boathouse, the three area spraygrounds and the Waterway Square fountain.
Once a lifeguard
McGowan said that just staffing the pools can be a lot of work.
The process started in December when the Township began renewing contracts with former employees who wanted to return for the summer.
In January, McGowan started hiring new recruits. "It's quite an undertaking," he said.
New lifeguards start training classes as early as the end of January. "We only train people who we are going to hire," McGowan said.
The Township helps cover the cost for the American Red Cross lifeguard certification, a four-day class with about 30 hours of instruction.
The new hires receive training in first aid, CPR and blood-borne pathogens.
"It's pretty intense," McGowan said.
The Woodlands also requires that returning lifeguards get recertified.
"We want to keep everyone on their game," McGowan said.
All lifeguards must be able to swim 300 yards, or 12 laps, and also lift a 10-pound rubber brick from the bottom of the pool and swim with it for the length of the pool.
Swim instructors take additional courses, as do lifeguards who work at Rob Fleming Park.
Ray said the training was challenging at first.
"Everything we learned at the training was completely new — from customer service to what to do if someone breaks their neck. You have to act really quickly," she said.
Once the lifeguards start working, they are kept active throughout the day.
"We have constant training," McGowan said. "All the lifeguards rotate throughout the day, and they practice skills every hour during safety breaks."
McGowan said safety is his top priority.
"While 99 percent of the time nothing happens, we're training for that 1 percent of the time something does," he said.
Commitment to safety
The Woodlands Township Aquatics Division has been recognized for its commitment to safety.
Aquatics International magazine awarded the Township Aquatics Division with Best Overall Commitment to Aquatics for a population between 50,000 and 499,999. The judging criteria required excellence in programming, promotional materials, aquatic amenities and community involvement.
The World Waterpark Association awarded the aquatics program with the SWIM! Award at its Symposium and Trade Show in San Antonio.
The honor awards excellence in training, inspiring and maintaining motivated employee teams.
The Woodlands' lifeguards have also won competitions across the state and have been state champions for four of the past five years.
Each summer they participate in the Texas Superguard, the North Texas Guard Games and the Texas Open Lifeguard Competition.
Finalists go to the state tournament, which will be held in Waco this year.
In the meantime, McGowan said he constantly searches for scenarios to keep his lifeguards at the top of their game.
Pierce said that she has enjoyed the training year after year. "I like the challenge," she said.
Pierce added that she values her experience as a lifeguard because of the skills she has acquired.
"You learn a lot - not just safety skills but customer service and good people skills," she said.
McGowan said a lot of lifeguards return to work for three or four summers.
He said he stuck with the career because the lifeguards and aquatic staff became a family to him.
Ray agrees that one of her favorite job perks is the camaraderie.
"We're all very close. Everyone is supportive and gets along really well," she said.
Ray already plans on returning next summer.
"I absolutely want to do it next year," she said.
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