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Oakland County

July 15, 2013

‘It’s a huge responsibility … dealing with life and death’

Oakland County lifeguards always watching, ready to rescue

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

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‘It’s a huge responsibility … dealing with life and death’
Mike Cavanaugh teaches his staff how to rescue a person with a back injury during a training session at Red Oaks Waterpark in Madison Heights July 9.

OAKLAND COUTY — You won’t catch the Oakland County lifeguards nodding off as they work on their tan. They are among the best in the nation — recipients of the Gold International Aquatic Safety Award, and recognized by Jeff Ellis & Associates for industry excellence from 2010-2012.   

Their reputation is based on vigilance, quick response times and proper care.

“It’s definitely an important job, and we make sure everyone who comes in to try and get their (lifeguard) license knows this,” said Mike Cavanaugh, assistant manager of the award-winning lifeguard program through Oakland County Parks and Recreation. “Most of the lifeguards are high school and college age, and we’re able to have a good time, but at the same time, there’s this camaraderie between everyone, where everyone knows how important our job is.”

Oakland County runs three beaches — Addison Oaks in Leonard, Independence Oaks in Independence Township, and Groveland Oaks in Groveland Township — and two water parks, Waterford Oaks in Waterford Township, and Red Oaks in Madison Heights.

Each has its share of water for the lifeguards to watch over. Red Oaks, for example, has a wave pool filled with 550,000 gallons, with a zero-depth entrance going 8 feet deep, and waves alternating on and off, 10 minutes at a time. Nearby, a triple-flume waterslide, several stories high, sends people rocketing into the water. 

Then there’s the river ride, nearly 1,000 feet in length, shallow in depth with a moderate current for floating people around or therapeutic walks upstream on Monday and Thursday evenings. Rounding out the park’s offerings is a children’s water playground and splash deck, with climbable structures, spraying waterworks and the “Big Bucket,” which fills up and dumps a couple hundred gallons periodically onto a roof that absorbs the impact and lets the water cascade down to the kids. 

The park attracts about 100,000 people each summer, averaging 1,100-1,300 a day. There’s a great deal of fun to be had at Red Oaks Waterpark at 13 Mile and Dequindre, next to the dog park and across the street from the nature center — but there is also the danger inherent in any aquatic environment. Life-and-death situations can arise in an instant, and the lifeguards on duty know this.

“I’d say, on average at Red Oaks, we have 200 to 300 in-water saves each summer,” said Matt Pardy, recreation specialist for Oakland County Parks and Recreation, supervising Red Oaks Waterpark and the Red Oaks Nature Center. “That’s an average summer where a lifeguard goes in to save someone. The vast majority of those never become more serious … but there are a good number of cases where, if no one helped, they would’ve drowned.”

All of the lifeguards are paid part-time positions. There’s a two-week window in February where people can apply for any number of positions in the parks, including lifeguard. Multiple lifeguards serve each park, assigned to different zones.

Applicants for the lifeguard position must be at least 16 years old. There is an initial screening process where the applicant must show he or she can swim 200 yards, either front crawl or breaststroke, and do so continuously without stopping or pausing. They also have to tread water for two minutes without using their hands or arms, and retrieve a 10-pound diving brick from a minimum depth of 8 feet, exiting the pool without using a ladder step or zero-depth.

Once they pass the screening process, the 24-hour-minimum internal training begins. There are technical skills to learn, such as various in-water saves — at the surface vs. below the surface, and a conscious target vs. an unconscious one. Rapid extraction techniques are used for targets that have passed out.

Lifeguards are trained to the equivalent of a professional rescuer, so they know how to perform CPR and rescue breathing — not mouth-to-mouth, but via bag-valve masks that provide pure oxygen to the person. This prolongs the dying process long enough for an AED (automated external defibrillator) to be deployed, restarting the pulse.

Lifeguards even know how to administer first aid, whether it’s something as simple as a scrape, cut, bump or bee sting, or something as severe as spinal injury. When someone hurts their back in the water, the lifeguard must move them onto a special board and lift them out of the water without moving the victim’s body. This avoids causing more damage.

The bulk of a lifeguard’s time is spent on lookout, constantly scanning the water for trouble spots. They adhere to the 10/20 protection standard: 10 seconds to scan the entirety of their designated zone — the surface, middle and bottom — and 20 seconds to reach anyone anywhere in that three-dimensional body of water.

“We test for this, verifying they can detect trouble spots within 10 seconds and reach them within 20 seconds,” Pardy said. “They are trained to have a consistent scanning pattern where they’re actively searching the water for anyone in distress.” 

Their diligence, he said, makes all the difference. Training is ongoing and serves to drill into their minds the weight of what’s at stake.  

“It’s a huge responsibility,” Pardy said. “We’re dealing with life and death, and every day, we have the possibility that someone can drown and die in our facilities. What stands between people drowning and dying is having lifeguards who care and are passionate — lifeguards who are trained and work hard. They understand the severity of it.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.