They stand watch where other people play, their gaze never straying from the lake. Looking away, even for the moment it takes to answer a question, can endanger a life – and is a major violation of lifeguard protocol.
While on duty in the chairs, guards ceaselessly scan the water, their eyes tracing “MOB8” – an M, a spiral, then a B and a figure 8 – so as not to miss a swimmer in distress.
The fun, the tan, the glamour are just part of the lifeguards’ story. “Few summer jobs are as rewarding as this,” says Adam Abajian, recreation program manager, Lakefront Operations. “But you have a lot of responsibility. You can’t have a bad day.”
To prepare for saving lives, all waterfront staff – this year’s totaling 74 “rookies and formers” – must pass a rigorous 40-hour preseason course. “[Other cities] have a two- to three-day training,” says Mr. Abajian, lakefront program director for the 14th year. “Our rookie school is more physical than it is in most places.”
Those admitted to the Evanston training course have already been certified as lifeguards through school or Y programs, says Mr. Abajian. But more than half those who apply never make it through the course to work the beach. Of 48 new applicants this year, says Mr. Abajian, only 35 showed up for the initial swim test. By the time rookie school started, only 24 remained.
On June 7, their first day of training at the lakefront, 20 rookies gather on Lighthouse Beach, 14 boys and six girls. Though halfway through the course, they are still considered “applicants,” not yet assured of jobs. The day before the beaches open, Mr. Abajian ranks the applicants by their “scores on various mental and physical tests,” he says, with “the ones who perform the best getting the first shot at schedules.”
Today the wannabes are lined up military-style, elbows bent and hands behind their back, looking toward the water. Tim Silkaitis, a training supervisor back at the beach for the seventh year, says, “They need some discipline.”
Another supervisor barks, “Some of you aren’t scanning right. You know MOB8. You should be doing it.”
The rookies will spend this afternoon practicing water entries, board rescues, saves and carries. Spurred on by shouts from their seven supervisors, they start by running a lap around the beach (“Don’t be last”), then breaching the water with dolphin dives (“No walking”).
Supervisor and five-year lakefront veteran Abby Miller orders the rookies to prepare for push-ups on the sand. “Half of you failed the exam,” she yells. She calls out the names of those who will have to retake the written test tonight, then, counting push-ups, roars, “What kind of day is it today?” The group responds, “It’s a great day to be at the beach, ma’am.”
With both air and water at 64 degrees and a stiff breeze blowing from the east, it is a day that raises goose bumps on winter-pale skin. But compared to other years, says Mr. Abajian, the water is warm. “It is usually in the 40s or 50s at this time,” he says.
The rookies divide into four groups and begin creating a sand pile at the foot of each guard chair, as they will every morning at the beach. “[The sand pile] saves lots of ankles,” says Mr. Abajian. But it also trips up many a novice.
The pile is meant to absorb the shock when a guard jumps down from the chair for a rescue. But, despite warnings, first-time guards often build their sand pile by digging a hole in front of their chair, says Mr. Abajian. They risk falling in the hole on their way to the water.
Any such delay impedes “getting into the water fast,” the guards’ first priority, says Mr. Abajian. Most of the rookies have honed their lifeguarding skills in swimming pools. Today they will pit muscle and mind against Lake Michigan.
An average season sees 15 rescues on the Evanston beaches, says Mr. Abajian. Last year there were only eight or nine, but some years count as many as 40. “Most are little kids right at the shore,” he says.
Practiced – or observed – for the first time, the rescue drills have a daunting complexity. They are choreographed for speed and precision. From the whistle blast of a guard who spots trouble to the victim’s safe arrival on shore, the procedures combine Evanston policy and U.S. Lifesaving Association guidelines, says Mr. Abajian.
At the cry of “Spinal!” from the chair – code for a possible spinal injury — a trio of guards races from the beach to the water. One of them climbs to the chair and changes places with the guard who knows the victim’s whereabouts. The witnessing guard leads the rescue team in carefully securing the victim on the spinal board and bringing him or her out of the water. Even the ordinary rescue board is tricky. Lying off-center, the rookies learn, can cause the board to tip while the guard is paddling.
The rookies receive encouragement as well as criticism on their lake premiere. After today one more applicant will drop out, but the others still have 20 hours of rookie school to hone the skills — and confidence — the job requires.
In an emergency, confidence is vital. The most important thing to do when assisting a victim, one supervisor tells his trainees, is to “comfort and reassure the victim that you are a lifeguard and you know what you’re doing.”