Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Lifeguards strive to prevent, not respond to, mishaps

by JAN SHELLENBARGER on June 15, 2014 2:00 AM

Now that schools are out for the summer and temperatures are heating up, area pools are relying on their seasoned lifeguards to keep them fun and safe.

Returning to their duties at Mack Park Pool are Jeannie Bujdos, with five years of experience; Sean Gibbon, in his fourth year; Johnny Zarpentine, who worked one year as a volunteer at the pool’s slide and the past three years as a lifeguard; and Gabby Bobak, also serving three years as a guard.

[PHOTO: Gabby Bobak kept watch recently as Samantha Sneddon, 14, and Brianna Beere, 6, both of Indiana, splashed in Mack Park Pool. (Teri Enciso/Gazette photo)]

Bobak, a 2014 graduate of Indiana Area Senior High School who will be attending Allegheny College in the fall, was part of the high school’s swim team and feels at home in the water.

“Being around the pool is second nature to me,” she said.

A business and accounting major at Westminster College, Gibbon said on busy days at the pool, at least nine guards are on duty, where they supervise different areas, with one person doing clean up, one on break and the rest at stations around the pool. The guards switch stations periodically, which he said “helps us to stay fresh.”

One safety rule that Mack Pool enforces involves colored wristbands, which help the lifeguards keep track of the capabilities of the younger children.

Bujdos, a pre-med student at Seton Hill University, said children 10 and under are tested and wear a green band if they pass the deep water test, a yellow band for those who have not passed the test, and a red band for swimmers who are under 46 inches tall and who must be within arm’s reach of a parent or guardian at all times.

“It helps us make sure they aren’t going where they can’t swim,” Bujdos said.

Paying attention to the children is the hardest part of the job, according to Zarpentine, a 2014 graduate of Indiana High, who plans to join the Navy Reserves and study criminology at IUP.

“We mainly just watch the pool constantly and try not to get distracted when people want to talk to us,” he said. “We answer questions and stay friendly, but try to discourage long conversations.”

Dr. Jonathan B. Smith, a professor of health and physical education at IUP who has taught water safety for more than 20 years, says the trick to staying vigilant involves not staring at any one spot in the pool.

“You’re not reading the book,” he says, “you are skimming the book.”

Smith said lifeguarding is a preventive type of job.

“If you are doing your job well and preventing accidents, no one is ever going to know they didn’t happen,” he said.

According to Smith, it can take only 60 seconds to drown, and most drownings occur within 10 feet of safety.

“The ‘Big Three’ causes of drowning are the inability to swim, cold water and alcohol,” Smith said.

He also said there are different kinds of drowning.

“Dry drowning is when the lungs stay dry and the person suffocates, and wet drowning occurs when water gets into the lungs,” he said.

People, particularly children, can also succumb to secondary or “near” drowning, where a person goes under water briefly and seems to be OK, but later that day develops chemical pneumonitis, where chemicals in the pool water get into their lungs and causes pneumonia.

At George C. Brown Memorial Pool in Punxsutawney, Lisa Switlick, a member of the SPLASH (Save Punxs’y Local and Area Swimming Hole) Committee, is proud of the safety measures incorporated in the 85-year-old pool over the last several years.

“A new wading pool was added in 2009,” she said, “which includes a bubbler and zero-depth entrance, like a beach.”

Switlick, a Punxsutawney native, says most of the lifeguards employed at George C. Brown enjoyed the pool as children, “the same as my kids and I did when we were growing up,” she said. Switlick remembers when safety wasn’t as monitored as it is today.

“When I was younger, the pool had a tall, old metal slide and a 10-foot diving tower,” Switlick said, “and we’d jump or slide into about 3 feet of water.”

According to Switlick, the current rule indicates that for every foot a structure stands above the water, there should be at least 2 feet of water below it. “We should have been jumping into 20 feet of water,” she said. “We’re lucky we didn’t break our necks!”

Working to prevent serious mishaps at the Homer City Community Pool for six years, Beth Maggio said when necessary, she has to maintain authority and make sure swimmers follow the rules.

“Sometimes I have to be the ‘mean’ lifeguard,” she said.

Maggio, who is studying occupational therapy and psychology at St. Francis University, said going to the Homer City pool is a family tradition.

“My brother and sister were lifeguards when I was growing up, my mom is the pool manager and my dad helped rebuild the diving board recently when it broke,” she said.

All of the lifeguards said the best part of their job is interacting with pool patrons and helping them learn water safety rules.

“We like giving back to our community,” Maggio said. “Plus it’s a great feeling to see a little kid who is scared to jump in the water, and by the end of the summer they are so much more confident.”

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