Santiago Restrepo and Lesly Montoya signed up to be lifeguards in high school thinking it would be a convenient and temporary summer job.
But now Restrepo is going on his fifth year working at the West Gwinnett Aquatic Center in Norcross and just started a new position as a manager, while Montoya has been there for two years and is a water safety instructor.
But that’s the thing about the job, Restrepo said. People come in for the summer and have a hard time finding a reason to leave.
“For the most part, it’s a lot of kids coming from high school looking for a seasonal job, and they’ll come and work for the summer and end up sticking till the winter,” Restrepo said. “It turns from a few months into a few years. We have so much going on, it makes it a place that you want to come back and keep working at.”
Looking for lifeguards
With summer approaching, Gwinnett County Parks & Recreation will soon be on the lookout for new lifeguards at its five aquatic centers and four public pools located across the county. Restrepo and Montoya agree lifeguarding is a great way for young adults to spend the summer, and the job provides plenty of long-term opportunities and benefits.
Montoya, for example, just started college at Georgia State University and plans on majoring in early childhood education, something she wasn’t sure of until she started working with youth as a water safety instructor.
“It’s one of the best things that’s happened to me,” Montoya said. “It’s opened so many doors. I want to be a teacher, so this has given me the experience to be able to do that.”
While there’s plenty of fun to be had on the job, lifeguarding isn’t for everyone. Candidates will need to be capable swimmers and be able to handle the responsibility of being able to respond and handle life-threatening situations.
Anyone interested in becoming a lifeguard must first meet prerequisites, including a 300-yard swim using freestyle, breaststroke or a combination of both, tread water for two minutes using only their legs, and perform a surface dive and retrieve a brick from 10 feet of water.
Before they can apply, they will also have to complete a Red Cross certification course.
A positive environment and high expectations
Montoya, 18, said the team of lifeguards and facility managers at West Gwinnett Aquatics Center has created an environment that builds teamwork and bonding.
“Forming bonds here is the main reason I really love my job,” she said. “We’re all very close. It helps when you’re not guarding to have someone to talk to because you always want to have someone to talk to at a job. The managers are always there for us and willing to accommodate any issue.”
But Restrepo, 23, said each lifeguard is expected to maintain the same high level of alertness and professionalism that’s expected of firefighters and EMTs. It could be the case that a lifeguard never experiences an emergency situation during the time they work there, but they should always be ready.
“I know it looks like a fun job — and it is a fun job — but we have to tell them all the time that this is a job, and we have to make sure we’re doing it right because we can put people in danger if we’re not doing it right,” he said. “We are like first responders in these situations, so we have to be on top of everything.”
While on duty, the lifeguards have built-in routines to keep them honest and from getting too relaxed, Restrepo said. Each lifeguard is given a weekly audit that requires a 500-yard swim, multiple diving exercises, CPR and water safety refreshers, and quizzes about scenarios, such as how to handle injuries.
Staying alert is key
“It’s really easy to relax and think nothing’s ever going to happen, but you never know when something’s going to happen,” he said. “We try to catch everything before it happens. If we see a little kid who’s going to jump in the water without their parents, we’ll look for stuff like that before it even happens.”
Restrepo and Montoya both said they have to pay attention to what’s happening out of the water just as much, if not more, than what’s happening in it. On a busy summer day, the team of lifeguards could have as many as 500 people to account for, including children wandering away from their parents.
“There was a situation where a girl was left alone by her parents, and we caught it a little late,” Restrepo said. “But there’s a girl in the water by herself and she’s in distress. That’s something you should immediately look for. You want to look for something that doesn’t look right.”
Other times, a child could go off to the restroom or another area of the facility by themselves without the knowledge of their parents.
“We have a lost child procedure that we go through,” Restrepo said. “We get everybody out of the water, and we’ll contact the facility manager, and we’ll pretty much shut down the facility. We can’t let anybody in or out, and we go around and search until we find the kid.”
Montoya said that lifeguards cycle through 15-minute rotations while on stand for half of their shifts, and while on stand, they are prohibited from talking.
“It takes a lot of patience and a lot of awareness,” she said. “You have to be aware at all times because you don’t really know what can happen at any instance.”
The other part of the job is spent helping to manage the facility.
“There’s a lot more that goes into it (than sitting by the pool),” she said. “We really keep this facility together. At the end of every shift, we always have assigned duties like cleaning the restrooms, the lobby, the pool deck.
“We all have a part here, and I think we do a great job coming together and getting it done,” Montoya added.