Skip to main content

15 things your lifeguard won't tell you

By Jacque Wilson, CNN
There are thousands of trained lifeguards around the country keeping watch over your summer water fun.
There are thousands of trained lifeguards around the country keeping watch over your summer water fun.
  • Lifeguards are often responsible for cleaning the bathrooms and running concessions
  • Arm floaties or life jackets can give parents a false sense of security
  • Don't leave your child at the pool alone unless you want us to know your life story

(CNN) -- Unlike most teens in high school, I didn't come home from my summer job smelling like hamburger grease or department store hangers.

I spent my days stretched out in a chair, slathered in SPF 30, occasionally lifting my polarized sunglasses to double-check the bottom of the pool for drowning children.

Like the saying goes, it's a tough job, but someone's got to do it.

Of course, there are downsides to anything that pays minimum wage. That hamburger scent was replaced by the lingering smell of chlorine. My blond hair always had a slight green tint to it. And I found myself involuntarily yelling "No running!" at random kids in the mall on my days off.

I trained hard at 15 to become this "Baywatch" wannabe. The Red Cross certifies lifeguards only after an intensive, 30-plus-hour course on CPR, first aid and rescue skills with both a written and physical final exam.

Thankfully, there are thousands of similarly trained lifeguards around the country keeping watch over your summer water fun. Their first priority is safety. But there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes that they'd never tell you.

Think you know all there is to know about sunscreen, chlorine and pool "accidents"? Check out these secrets from lifeguards past and present.

1. We clean the bathrooms ...

"Most of the time, we're the ones doing the daily cleaning, and a professional comes by once a week. Would you leave the cleanliness of your bathroom to high school kids?"
-- Greg, a Texas lifeguard and pool manager for five years

Plantar warts are caused by an HPV infection on the bottom of your feet. The virus thrives in warm, moist environments, according to the Mayo Clinic, so pool decks, locker rooms and shower floors are perfect places for it to hang out. Save yourself a painful visit to the doctor's office by wearing flip-flops any time you're not in the water.

2. ... and run the concession stand

"The cheese sauce on your nachos? It's probably been reheated for at least a week, if not longer."
-- Grant, a Chicago suburbs lifeguard for 10 years

Bring your own snacks to the pool; it's easier to entice kids to take a break and reapply sunscreen while they're chomping down. And remember to drink lots of water -- heat stroke is caused by excessive heat and dehydration.

3. We can't watch everyone

"Even the best lifeguards can miss something while watching a crowded beach with over 200 swimmers. Never assume that the lifeguards will do their job perfectly."
-- Noah, a Jersey Shore ocean lifeguard for more than 10 years

Lifeguards are trained to scan their space repeatedly from front to back, left to right and zigzag. If you see a guard on duty repeatedly looking down to talk to someone or staring off in the distance, notify a manager.

On the flip side, don't be the patron who's distracting us with a 30-minute monologue about your favorite frozen treat flavor.

4. Our pool shouldn't smell like chlorine

"If the pool chemicals are a little off, we're going to look the other way until we really, really need to fix them."
-- Greg, a Texas lifeguard and pool manager for five years

The strong odors are called chloramines, which come from bodily fluids that are breaking down the chlorine in the pool, New Orleans pool consultant Josh Ulfers says. "A properly maintained and sanitized pool should not have much of a chlorine odor."

Too much chlorine, on the other hand, can cause coughing, burning in the eyes and nausea, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Leave the pool area if you experience any of these symptoms.

5. We don't always clear the pool after an "accident" ...

"Even though most cities require pools to be closed when someone's kid goes No. 2 in the pool, the majority of pools I have worked for just add a little more chlorine. In one instance, I was working as a swim instructor and there was a particularly 'serious' incident where I was just instructed to teach my students on the opposite end of the pool. Completely gross, but they didn't want to lose the revenue from having to cancel lessons."
-- Jeremy, a Tucson, Arizona, beach and pool lifeguard for five years

Breaking news bulletin: Fecal matter can carry serious germs. If you see (or have) an accident, tell a lifeguard immediately and make sure to exit the pool. State and local guidelines vary, but the CDC recommends that pools raise their chlorine levels and shut down for at least 30 minutes.

6. ... and if we do, it's not always real

"At one point, a fellow lifeguard and I sank a Snickers bar so we could have an hour break and make everyone clear the pool. It was the best time ever ... we ordered lunch from a local pizza shop."
-- Alan, a Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, lifeguard for two years

Ever seen "Caddyshack"? We have, and each time a summer camp, day care center or pack of obnoxious teens enters the pool, we dream of pulling the same stunt.

7. We need you to watch your kids

"Keep an eye on your toddlers. Hell, keep both eyes on them. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a 2-year-old walk down the steps at the shallow end and keep walking until he's underwater because he has no idea what's happening. And Mom's busy chatting 5 feet away, not paying attention."
-- Shaun, a Greenwich, Connecticut, lifeguard for six years

8. We swim after we eat

"No Red Cross records exist that anyone ever got a stomach cramp from going into the water too soon after eating."
-- Robert, a Far Rockaway, New York, lifeguard

Granted, the Red Cross doesn't keep track of such incidents. But while cramping can occur, it's rare and hardly life-threatening. dismissed that rumor in 2005, saying that there has never been a drowning attributed to entering the water less than an hour after eating.

9. Thunder is our best friend

"If it's raining or we hear the faintest sound of thunder -- even if it's potentially just a loud truck passing by -- we're closing the pool for 30 minutes. Our job is all about safety, remember?"
-- Greg, a Texas lifeguard and pool manager for five years

We know the storm cloud is miles away and your kids don't mind swimming in the rain. But our guidelines require us to clear everyone away from the water for at least 30 minutes if we hear thunder or see lightning to ensure you don't get electrocuted. Plus, it gives us a chance to grab our umbrellas.

10. We hate floaties

"Arm floaties or swimsuits with life jacket-like belts sewn in are, in fact, dangerous. It's a false sense of security. An arm floatie can pop and strand a weak swimmer far from a wall or shallow water. The life jacket belts can just as easily hold a kid upside down on the surface as right side up. There is no replacement for teaching your kids water safety skills and keeping a close watch."
-- Mary, a San Francisco lifeguard for 10 years

11. The thought of doing CPR scares us

"When I almost had to give CPR, I completely locked up and was unable to actually assist at first."
-- Alan, a Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, lifeguard for two years

Contrary to what you see on TV medical dramas, only 5% to 15% of people who are given standard CPR survive cardiac arrest, according to the Journal of Emergency Medical Services. And lifeguards know this -- our first plan of action will always be to call 911.

12. We know when you drop your kids off

"If you're leaving your children at the pool for more than four hours every day, we're going to be on a first-name basis and know your entire life story -- even if we've never met you."
-- Greg, a Texas lifeguard and pool manager for five years

There was once an 8-year-old child who spent the afternoon at my pool alone. Before she left, I found out that her mother was "sleeping over" at her neighbor's house, her brother had flunked seventh-grade math and her grandma sometimes forgot to wear underwear. That's not a picture I needed in my head.

The majority of pools have rules against leaving children under the age of 16 at the pool unsupervised. Lifeguards are not baby sitters. Period.

13. We have rules for a reason

"We are trained to notice people who are struggling and how to discern playful splashing from panicked swimming, which is why virtually every pool includes 'no splashing' rules. Most injuries at the pool are caused by people running or horsing around, not water emergencies. It's wet and it's slippery. Teach your kids to walk, rather than run, and to look before they leap into the pool; jumping in on top of someone else can cause a severe injury."
-- Mary, a San Francisco lifeguard for 10 years

14. We care about tan lines

"At the country club, some of us would lifeguard with a piece of pizza in hand, twirling the whistle in the other with our swimsuit straps down to ensure the best tan."
-- Caitlin, a Pittsburgh lifeguard

Although highly discouraged by medical experts everywhere, tanning is a necessary peril of sitting in the sun all day. So it makes sense that lifeguards are the unofficial experts. If you're looking to get a little color fast, buy formulas that contain carrot oil, a natural tanning enhancer.

But make sure to also layer on the sunscreen -- the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends an SPF of at least 30, reapplied every two hours, if you'll be in the sun for a while. Pay close attention to oft-missed spots like the back of your neck, tops of your feet and tops of your ears.

15. We're still kids ourselves

"We love our jobs, and playing on the diving board anytime we're not on the guard stand. It's an unwritten rule that the guard with the best diving board tricks deserves the most respect."
-- Greg, a Texas lifeguard and pool manager for five years