Pool lifeguards do far more than just work on their tan: These trained professionals can detect subtle indications of distress, shut down dangerous water activities, and keep visitors safe from harm.
But jumping to the rescue is only a minor part of their routine. To get a better idea of what their job entails, we asked several career pool lifeguards about their duties, from working with dangerous chemicals to dealing with poop emergencies. Here's what we learned.
1. Pool lifeguards can tell how well you swim by how you get into the water.
Paul, a lifeguard at a private pool facility in Reno, Nevada, says that he can usually evaluate a person’s swimming abilities by how they enter the water. “People who are less skilled and experienced typically lower themselves into the pool or use the stairs or ladders,” he says. “More skilled swimmers do this thing where they jump into the pool, fully submerge, then push off the bottom and start swimming immediately. It's surprisingly common.”
2. Pool lifeguards see a lot of crack.
Swimming trunks may be some of the least-intuitive apparel items of the modern world: Get them wet and they’re likely to make for an anatomy lesson no one asked for. “Kids, especially boys, have the strangest inability to notice when their trunks are falling off,” says Marek, an indoor lifeguard in Washington state. “It's usually not a big deal and gets handled when the kid's parent notices and scolds them."
3. Pool lifeguards are amateur chemists.
Responsibility for maintaining the pH balance of a pool and adding or reducing chemicals to preserve a clean environment is usually the duty of head lifeguards. According to Darrell, a 10-year veteran of indoor pools, handling these substances requires additional training. “This is done at the end of the day and I typically add chemicals twice or sometimes three times a week,” he says. “I add either calcium chloride to control the hardness of the water or sodium bicarbonate, baking soda, to control the alkalinity.” For germ-killing, chlorine and muriatic acid are delivered to the water through a computer-controlled delivery system.
4. Some very gross things lurk at the bottom of pools.
Some lifeguards are charged with vacuuming the bottom surfaces of pools, which usually produces a composite muck in the canister that Marek refers to as a “diaper”: It’s typically full of hair and gray sludge. But things can get worse. Much worse. “At the summer camp I work at, I've had the pleasure of fishing dead things out of the strainer baskets,” he says. “Frogs and rats. Having seen what comes out of those pools, let's just say that I'm not a big fan of recreation swimming anymore.”
5. Pool lifeguards dislike lane hogs.
Some regulars who use private pools as part of their fitness routine can get a little too self-confident in their skills. “Narcissistic lap swimmers” are a pet peeve of Paul’s. “They can't share lanes and always brag about how they're the best damn person in the pool. It's like, man, I've seen 5-year-olds with a better breast stroke.” (Another way to get on a guard’s bad side: sitting over a lane and dangling your legs in.)
6. lifeguards are not above peeing in the pool.
It’s a testament to how potent the chemicals are in pools that some lifeguards offering swim lessons don’t mind relieving themselves when nature calls and they don’t feel like getting out. “I know plenty of swim instructors who will relieve themselves in the pool because they don't have much time between lessons and they might be stuck in the water several hours,” Marek says. “One of my former coworkers, and a good friend, has always said that there are two kinds of people in the world. Those that pee in the pool, and those that deny it."
7. It's hard for pool lifeguards to predict when trouble will strike.
While some lifeguards subscribe to a 15-minute rule—most questionable swimmers are going to get themselves into trouble within 15 minutes of entering the water—Paul cautions that there are always exceptions. “If you're a weak enough swimmer that you would have a problem, you're going to have that problem pretty quickly,” he says. “Though that is only most of the time. Some people get tired and get into trouble later on and some people have heart attacks halfway through their swim. You've got to be ready for anything.”
8. Pool lifeguards see a lot of nosebleeds.
Irritated nasal passages can be a problem at pools, which means that lifeguards are frequently charged with handling biohazards on or near the deck. “We see a lot of nosebleeds,” Darrell says. “We cover the areas with signage. Hopefully the patron has found a guard quickly if we didn't see it and hasn't left a 50-foot trail of blood on the deck. We then spray the blood with a disinfectant solution designed to kill blood-borne pathogens, wait 10 minutes, then hose directly with water.”
9. Pool lifeguards follow a protocol for dealing with poop.
It’s the emergency every lifeguard dreads: a fecal deposit in a pool full of swimmers. When that happens, it’s time to “shock” the pool by turning it into a chemical bath. According to Darrell, who considers himself a “poop whisperer,” solids come out first. “Dispersed poop? Everyone out. Scoop and vacuum. The pool is closed for a minimum of eight hours as we now have to chemically burn the water. [That means] basically bringing the chlorine levels up to where even cockroaches would die.” Vomit is slightly less dire: the pool is closed for 30 minutes while the chlorine goes to work.
10. Lifeguards see the benefit of a crowded pool.
The more patrons in the water, the harder it might be for a lifeguard to keep track of everyone. But, Marek says, having too few people can be just as much of a problem. “Crowded pools have the benefit of holding your attention better. If you've got two patrons in the water, it's easy to get bored and zone out."
11. Pool lifeguards get really annoyed by inflatable armbands.
Those inflatable armbands worn by children? Lifeguards hate them. “They may pop, which would probably be unusual, or they may leak slowly,” Darrell says. “But that's not the real danger. Although they will keep a small child afloat, this is assuming the child has the strength to keep their arms down in order to keep their head above water.”
12. Pool lifeguards double as janitors.
At Paul’s private pool, lifeguards are expected to perform tasks that would usually be reserved for a maintenance crew. “Cleaning is a part of the job,” he says. “Many pools don't have janitors so the bulk of making sure the pool looks presentable is up to the lifeguards.” They’ll even set up tables for parties and clean the bathrooms.
13. Pool lifeguards have strategies to keep from zoning out.
Guards have all kinds of tricks for not letting their attention wander from swimmers: they keep their shoulders square with the pool, they count how many times a song plays on the radio, and they rotate positions every 15 minutes. “A wandering mind is a dangerous thing to have while actively guarding,” Darrell says. “I count patrons. I go through scenarios in my mind.” Cell phones are usually prohibited: getting caught with one can be grounds for termination.
14. Pool noodles are the bane of a lifeguard's existence.
While people are welcome to bring their own noodles to public pools, Darrell prefers they didn’t. Instead of being used as flotation aids, they wind up getting used as chew toys. “They end up with bite marks and chunks ripped out of them,” he says. “I often wish we could purchase noodles made out of foam that tastes like something rotten to discourage this.” Darrell will not directly seize a noodle from a tiny guest, but if he happens to see one abandoned, he will grab it. And he will not be sorry.
15. Pool lifeguards are not babysitters.
“I think my single biggest peeve when it comes to guarding is parents who assume that we are there to babysit their children for them,” Marek says. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Lifeguards are there to supervise and ensure a safe, and hopefully fun, environment for all. It's incredibly selfish and irresponsible to assume that we are there to watch your one child when we've got hundreds of other people to keep track of. We are there to mitigate risk and respond if something does happen, not to babysit.”
This story originally ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2021.