Keeping water lovers safe, one whistle blast at a time

·4 min read

Jul. 25—Searing and unrelenting, July persists, like a scoreless Sunday afternoon baseball game melting into extra innings.

There are basically two ways to cope: close up your house, crank up the air-conditioning and master every Call of Duty video game ever produced. Or venture into the heat and sunlight to find the only balm to an endless summer day — open water.

If you do so in Manchester, you'll likely end up at one of the two pools operated by the city. And there, you will put your safety, as well as your behavior, into the hands of Savannah Parker, Maryann Hurley or any one of the 24 other teens and young adults who lifeguard at the city pools.

As pool users (it's a stretch to call them all swimmers), bob and splash and jump, lifeguards do the guard thing.

Sunglasses are anchored to the bridge of their nose.

Feet firmly planted on cement deck, they clutch a floating device in one hand. The other hand is free to grasp and affix their audio billy club — a plastic whistle — to their lips.

"Crowd control, for sure, is a big part of the job," said Hurley, 20, who is in her fourth year as a lifeguard at Manchester pools. She and four others spoke to me during their Thursday lunch hour.

At 1 p.m., the gates opened to an overheated, overexcited crowd, the majority of them grade-schoolers and preteens bused to Raco-Theodore Pool.

Kids from at least four summer camps were slated to visit that afternoon: two Fun in the Sun camps, Girls Inc., Boys and Girls Club and maybe Salvation Army.

"When the camps come, I feel like I'm a baby sitter more than anything else," said Manchester resident Amandalee Espinal, who is 18. "With older people, I'm more like a cop."

It may seem impossible, even cruel, to expect kids suffering through a heat wave to avoid running, diving and roughhousing in a pool. Kind of like telling someone who hasn't eaten for two days to mind their manners at the table.

Yet, for the most part, the kids behaved early Thursday afternoon. The smaller ones packed the shallow end, where they bobbed in the water, laughed, shouted, plunged underwater, and jumped (but never dived) in.

Older children spread out more and acted more subdued in the 4 1/2 -foot deep section. Actual swimmers — about a half dozen — edged along the side and then ventured into the deep end.

At bird-like volume, the guards sounded their whistles a few times for the most common of transgressions — running or hanging onto the rope that separates deep water from shallow.

Yandel Pena, 11, said the lifeguards are people who want to save the world, if not just him.

"They're just trying to make me have a fun time. They have a little bit of rules, but that's OK," Pena said.

Parker said her cousins urged her to become a lifeguard. You're outside all the time, they told her, the work's not strenuous, the pay is good and you get a tan.

Others had different reasons: they were swim-team athletes in high school and segued into the job. Espinal liked the cool stature that comes with the job.

Jadeyn Kaler, a rising senior at Central High School, thinks it will help in her career field — mental health.

"I never thought I'd be bothered by people," Parker said. "I thought I had a lot of patience, but I get tested every day."

Teenagers are rude and mutter the "b-word" when the guards admonish them. Adults think they don't have to follow the rules; one went as far as sneaking alcohol in a baby bottle. Kids will test you to see how far they can go.

"The working conditions are tough," said Bob Ouellette, the city aquatics supervisor. Ouellette worked as a lifeguard at the city pools in the 1970s, then went on to make a career in education, including coaching high school swim teams.

He retired and took the job overseeing pools.

Lifeguards start at $16.25 an hour and could make more money at Walmart or Market Basket, Ouellette said. But how many kids as young as 16 are on the front end of a possible emergency, he said.

"They're first responders, like policemen," Ouellette said.

All of the five lifeguards I spoke to have been involved in active rescues, meaning someone is flailing their arms, struggling, yelling for help and in trouble.

But none has undergone the more serious rescue — a passive rescue — when the user is motionless and has stopped breathing. But they practice for it; Ouellette has them start every day with a training regimen.

That's on top of the prerequisites for the job: about 40 hours of training that involves CPR, defibrillator operation, first aid, rescue and swimming, of course.

Because one day, they may have to put those skills to work. On the little ones who hold them in awe. Or the adults who act like a teenage lifeguard can't tell them what to do. Or the teens who flirt with them one day and mouth off the next.

"They either hate you," Hurley said, "or they love you."

mhayward@unionleader.com