It was my third or fourth day as a lifeguard, my tan was hitting its stride, and I came to the final stop in my rotation around the pool before I could take a break out of the sun. I sat in the chair near the diving board where a summer camp was conducting a swim test.
Next to my chair was a camp counselor, on the other side of the deep end (about 25 yards away) stood another camp counselor. The children would swim from one counselor to the other, and a third was resting with two life preservers in the water at the mid point. It was a fail-proof system, and my job was to look pretty and sit there to make sure we were compliant with the law.
I am laser focused when it comes to learning a new skill set, and I have a terribly low patience for laziness. It’s part of why I post what I post here. In the case of this swim test, I was the only guard in a chair, only one child was in a pool at a time, and there were counselors who were responsible for the campers everywhere to help monitor the tests and the crowds.
After twenty or so children swam across, a young boy jumped into the water, swam a few feet, and then stalled. “I think you’re going to have to get him,” said the counselor next to my chair. “No, I think he’s got it,” I replied. The camper started swimming again, but stalled once more and began to sink, much to the annoyance of the counselor stationed a few feet away with a spare life preserver. I jumped in the pool to drag him to safety.
It was my first save and it was anti-climactic, but I was well-trained and helped many people throughout the summer without problem.
Eventually I was promoted to one of three pool managers. I tested the guards, trained the guards, scheduled the guards, tested the water every 30 minutes, administered first aid, dealt with ridiculous customers and more. I had the reputation of the “tough manager” by my second year in the position but I didn’t mind – the lifeguards would pay better attention and there was less a chance that someone would drown.
We were a little family. Sure, I was tough – I made the guards watch me clean almost an entire locker room one night after being unimpressed with their second attempt – but I knew how to relax when the time called for relaxation and we had plenty of fun.
Lifeguards require a lot of training, but there were several guards I did not place at the deep end of our pool because I had never seen them successfully save a cooperative lifeguard during trainings, let alone an actual unconscious human. There are a required number of lifeguards on duty to meet regulatory standards and in the absence of qualified candidates the park district had to make due with what was available.
That placed greater pressure on the qualified guards – they knew they would have to make up the difference in a worst case scenario (a spinal injury or seizure in the deep water).
I was required to observe and test the lifeguards on a weekly basis. The tests were a single-page checklist including:
- Are they constantly moving their head to scan their zone of the pool
- Would they crane their neck to look underneath their chair after every scan
- Would they whistle if a rule was broken, even if it occurred outside of their vision
Those all make sense but at a certain point people learn to ace the test without improving their skill. Their head moved, their eyes were open, but they were not paying much attention. Failing the test didn’t mean much either, they simply had to improve the following week and everything would be fine. The qualified guards could easily fail the test, even if they were actually paying better attention to the patrons of the pool.
It wouldn’t help that the department director would occasionally show up at a nearby picnic table in plain sight and with a video camera. The guards in the office would spot the camera, tell all of the lifeguards on duty, and then return back to the office to study the checklist. For a half hour or so we would film the most magnificent lifeguards in the world according to the checklist, but many of them still couldn’t perform a serious save.
As a manager this was torture. I spent more time than I should have watching the swimmers whenever certain guards were on duty. I’m sure that is a familiar feeling to any of us who work with fraternities and sororities in a professional or volunteer capacity (including student leaders).
There are certain expectations and skill sets required of a lifeguard, and they are centered around keeping swimmers safe and alive. We expect lifeguards to be skilled, but also personable, compassionate, and fair.
Much of what I observed while a manager at a pool is what I observe in the fraternity world. We could benefit from greater selectivity, even if it meant fewer members. We implement checklists as an after-the-fact form of quality control, but these are easy to adapt to and don’t really confirm that a chapter is “excellent.” Eventually, we focus all of our advising and all of our attention on the actions on the checklists, rather than what the actions are supposed to accomplish.
My greatest issue with the fraternity world is our preference for technicalities and statistical data over the obvious truth. Students and alumni see through the checklists, they know that they are merely one-off quizzes that, once passed, can be ignored. That’s not excellence, “better,” leadership, or whatever you want to call it.