42 Secrets Lifeguards Desperately Want You to Know

From helpful hints (floaties won't save your kid) to your most annoying habits (stop talking to me!), everything lifeguards want you to know before the start of summer pool season.

We fall asleep


It’s rare, but it does happen. Staring at the water in the bright sun can be mind-numbing. In my seven years of lifeguarding, I’ve had to discipline two lifeguards who fell asleep on the stand—but to be honest, they weren’t fired.

Parents, you need to pay attention too

beachSyda Productions/Shutterstock

The signs of drowning might surprise you: Drowning is a lot more silent than it can look in the movies. About a third of drowning deaths in the United States occur at lifeguarded pools, according to one report. Sitting nearby, looking at your phone, isn’t good enough. A child can drown in the time it takes you to text someone back.

Please, stop talking

lifeguardMarie Appert/Shutterstock

We’re supposed to listen politely, but your chitchat is distracting. When I’m on the stand, I’m scanning the area and taking head counts.

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But quick questions are OK

lifeguardOscar Johns/Shutterstock Of course we’re going to help you with legitimate safety concerns. We know the safest places to swim and which spots to avoid, so feel free to ask. Just don’t expect a 15 minute conversation.

We get excited when we hear thunder

cloudsMarijus Auruskevicius/Shutterstock

It means we can take a break for 30 minutes. That’s how long the National Lightning Safety Institute recommends keeping swimmers out of the water after the sound of thunder. Even if it might be a truck passing by, if it sounds like thunder, we’re shutting down the pool.

It’s not just kids who break the rules

poolKim Ruoff/Shutterstock

Some parents refuse to, say, stop throwing their kids in at the shallow end. Please respect pool rules like everyone else.

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You never know what you’re going to find


When checking the skimmer, the filter that removes debris from the pool, I’ve pulled out hair balls, soggy snacks, bloody Band-Aids, and animals—including frogs, rats, and even a snake once.

Some of us are very young


The American Red Cross certifies lifeguards as young as 15. I may spend the morning fighting with my mom about letting me go to a party, and then an hour later, I’m responsible for your child’s life.

If you can't see us, we can't see you

lifeguardSergi Lopez Roig/ShutterstockSwimming in an area without a lifeguard makes you five times more likely to drown compared to swimming with one of us around. In fact, the chances of drowning at a beach where there’s a USLA (United States Lifesaving Association) affiliated lifeguard are 1 in 18 million.

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Don’t equate standing with safety

poolAleph Studio/Shutterstock

I’ve seen many parents leave their two- and three-year-olds in a foot of water. If they stumble, I’m going to have to go get them. Toddlers often don’t have enough arm strength to lift themselves out of the water. These are other parenting safety mistakes even careful parents can make.

Actually read the rules

poolrulesurbazon/Shutterstock We know the signs posted around the water look long and boring, but they do say more than just “No running.” They can tell you whether or not your kids can swim without being accompanied by an adult, what to do if there’s a thunderstorm, and, if you’re on a beach, what our green, yellow, and red warning flags mean. If you follow those rules, that gives us more time to keep an eye on the water.

We do more than save people

lifeguardDavid M G/Shutterstock

We also perform first aid for minor cuts and bruises, clean the pool deck, set up the furniture, sell the concessions, sanitize the trash cans, and, yep, clean the bathrooms—all for around $10 an hour.

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Your bare feet gross us out

flipflopsIngkarat Bunnag/Shutterstock

The virus that causes plantar warts thrives in moist environments like locker rooms. Always wear shoes when you go into the bathroom.

If someone needs help, grab something that floats

floatPitchayarat Chootai/Shutterstock

A frantic drowning victim will claw and climb on you in an attempt to get out of the water, pushing you under. Instead, throw something buoyant, even if it’s just a cooler, to the victim.

Always swim with a friend

swimmingMJTH/Shutterstock Most drownings occur when someone is swimming alone. If something happens to you in the water, having a second person waving and shouting for us—in the water or on the shore—will get our attention a lot faster.

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We have access to intense chemicals

chemicalsDavizro Photography/Shutterstock

At some pools, teenagers are the ones handling chemicals such as hydrochloric acid. One time a lifeguard mixed two chemicals together incorrectly, and it created such dangerous fumes, we had to evacuate the clubhouse. Here are lifesaving lessons you can learn from poison control centers.

I make a difference

cprDavid M G/Shutterstock

A gentleman once had a stroke and fell unconscious. I had to do CPR until the ambulance arrived. He’s fine now, and I don’t think he even recognizes me, but when I see him back at the pool, I feel really good about what I did.

No pool is perfectly clean

poolKateryna Mostova/Shutterstock

Always rinse off after swimming and avoid swallowing the water. (It's seriously gross.) When researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took samples from 161 public and private pools in 2013, they found that more than half were contaminated with the E. coli bacteria normally found in human feces.

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The diving board makes me nervous


I’ve seen many people injure themselves from slipping off or jumping up and hitting the board. To minimize the risk, bounce only once, keep your hands in front of you when you dive, and always jump out (not to the side) of the board.

Drowning doesn’t look like you think it will


Forget what you’ve seen on TV. When someone is in real trouble, they don’t splash, yell, or wave their arms in the air. Most victims are quiet, with their heads barely above the water.

We make up rules

splashingSunny studio/Shutterstock  

When a child is doing something annoying, like splashing everyone in sight, sometimes I come up with a rule on the spot to make him stop: “No splashing!”

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We don’t like floaties


swimmingAnna Om/Shutterstock

They can come off in a heartbeat. Noodles, water wings, and inner tubes are equally unreliable. If your child can’t swim, use a U.S. Coast-Guard Approved life vest or puddle jumper appropriate for your child’s weight.

We take things from Lost and Found


Anything left for more than two weeks is fair game. About half of the towels I use now are from my pool’s Lost and Found.

I’ve never actually rescued anyone


And I’m terrified at the thought. Many lifeguards work for years before performing a water rescue.

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We can never relax around water


Once you’ve been a lifeguard, you will never again be able to relax at a pool or beach. Even when I’m not working, I’m always scanning the pool, and I find myself saying, “Don’t run.”

We’re not babysitters


Don’t complain to me if a kid isn’t sharing his ball. Don’t ask me where your kid is or who he’s with. And don’t drop off your child if he’s not old enough to be responsible. My job is to keep people safe.

We aren’t just sitting up here working on our tans


I’ve been attentively scanning the area and taking headcounts for 30 minutes. People don’t realize how grueling and stressful it is. I’ve been doing this for years, and I still get tense before I get into the stand. Read more about how stress can make you sick.

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At the beach, finding lost children is a huge part of our job

 beachMax Topchii/Shutterstock

On a crowded day, you can look away for just a few seconds and lose your child in mass of people. Point out the lifeguard stand to your kids and tell them to come to us if they get lost.

The breath-holding game is not a game


Even accomplished swimmers can black out and die. The CDC issued a report last May that documented 16 shallow-water blackouts from 1988 to 2011 in New York State alone. Four ended in death.

Lightning is a real danger


You'd be amazed by how many people argue with us about getting out of the water when we’ve just seen a huge bolt of lightning strike right up the street. The storm clouds will be rolling in, the sky will be filled with thunder and lightning, and people say, ‘Do I really have to get out of the pool?’ Did you know these strange facts about lightning strikes?

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Some rules have nothing to do with your safety

 lanedividePashin Georgiy/Shutterstock

You can’t hang on to the lane dividers because it damages them over time, and replacing them is expensive. You can’t bring your dog to the beach because the city doesn’t want to pay to clean up poop (but here are some great parks you can take your pup to instead). We don’t make the rules; we’re just here to enforce them, so please don’t argue.

Don’t float where you can’t swim

 boogieboardClick and Photo/Shutterstock

Even if you Velcro that Boogie Board to your wrist, you can lose it. In fact, it happens so often that we actually use it as a training scenario for our beach lifeguards.

Goldfish should be banned


It’s bad enough that we have to clean up your soggy pizza, spilled ice cream, and empty beer cans. But Goldfish crackers are the worst. Kids are always spilling them everywhere. They get all mushy on the pool deck and are disgusting to clean up.

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Swim parallel to the beach if you’re caught in a rip current

 swimminglakov Kalinin/Shutterstock

If you’re having trouble, raise your hand and yell for help. If you can float, you can survive a rip current.

Stay away from piers

pierHert Niks/Shutterstock Any type of pier or jetty usually has permanent rip currents nearby. Keeping at least 100 feet away from these structures is an easy way to avoid getting swept away by a nasty current.

Throw a beach ball, not a tennis ball


When you get pegged in the face with a tennis ball (or even a basketball), it hurts. I buy a pack of beach balls at the beginning of the season. When the kids start playing with a ball I know is going to hurt someone (whose injury I will have to treat), I trade it out for a beach ball.

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Swim sober

drinkAnd One/Shutterstock Sure, a day at the beach with a 6-pack by your side sounds like a dream, but it could turn into a nightmare if you're not careful. Alcohol affects your ability to assess dangerous situations, so you may think you're able to swim that far or hold your breath for that long without realizing the life-threatening risks. The same goes for swimming in pools.

We pay attention when you’re digging in the sand

   sandKokosha Yuliya/Shutterstock

Kids have suffocated after climbing into a deep hole when the sand collapsed around them. That’s why many beaches have rules that prohibit holes more than knee deep. Here's a true story about a boy who disappeared into a sand dune.

We know who the troublemakers are


By the second week on the job, we’ve sized up everyone at the pool and we know who can swim, who can’t, and who’s most likely to cause trouble. It helps us figure out who to pay the most attention to.

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You’re not the only one in the water

jellyfishHelen Birkin/Shutterstock Coming into contact with jellyfish and other sea creatures is a very real possibility whenever you go to the beach. (Also, that myth about peeing on jellyfish stings is false.) They won't bother you if you don't bother them, so give them space if you see one. And please, do not try to touch or hold them.

We have secret signals


When we see one of our pool board members walk in, we make a “caw-caw” sound like a crow to alert all the other lifeguards.

No running! Really, we mean it


Many of the injuries we deal with are caused by people running, skipping, and fooling around outside of the water. It’s wet and slippery on the pool deck.

Sources: Lifeguards in Atlanta, Ga.; Philadelphia, Pa.; Charlotte, N.C.; Grace Witsil, a former lifeguard in Chapel Hill, N.C.; Thomas G. Gill, a Virginia Beach lifeguard and spokesman for the United States Lifesaving Association; usla.org; redcross.org

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