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On Duty: State park lifeguards

Guarding Sandy Point; courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Program

Guarding Sandy Point; courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Program

Maryland State Parks annually host more than 6 million visitors between Memorial Day and Labor Day. They come to enjoy the campgrounds, trails and playgrounds, and to cool off in the water. Many parks boast water attractions like lakes and beaches along the Atlantic Ocean, Chesapeake Bay and Deep Creek Lake, and even a couple of pools.

Assateague; by Stephen Badger

Assateague; by Stephen Badger

Each year, the Maryland Park Service hires more than one hundred lifeguards to keep watch over our visitors who want to spend a fun-filled and safe day near or in the water with family and friends.

Lifeguards are on duty during summer months to ensure public safety and educate visitors of both the joys and the hazards of an aquatic environment. They often serve as the main point of contact and answer questions, give directions and even assist with wildlife issues.

A premier spot for bay swimming and waterfront picnics, Sandy Point employs twenty lifeguards to monitor 1,600 feet of very busy beachfront. Keeping a watchful eye over their areas, they rescue swimmers, assist boaters in distress and help locate lost children. In 2015 alone, Sandy Point lifeguards reunited over 120 children with their parents!

Safety tips

To help our lifeguards this summer, please follow these simple steps to ensure the safety of you and your family and friends:

  • Swim in designated areas supervised by lifeguards.
  • Never swim alone; always swim with a buddy.
  • Teach children to always ask permission to go near/in water.
  • Have young children/inexperienced swimmers wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket.
  • Maintain constant supervision and avoid distractions.
  • If a child is missing, check the water first and then alert a lifeguard.
  • Wear sunscreen.
  • Drink plenty of water regularly.
Dan's Mountain; by William Baumann

Dan’s Mountain; by William Baumann

Water water everywhere

Although lifeguards can expect similar experiences statewide, each park offers unique features and opportunities.

New Germany staff stay busy guarding their 13-acre lake as well as managing the heated pool at Dan’s Mountain, which overlooks the town of Lonaconing.

Rocky Gap and Point Lookout offer pet-friendly beaches in addition to their other waterfront amenities. Amazingly, lifeguards at Rocky Gap have not only rescued people from the 243-acre Lake Habeeb, but dogs in distress as well.

Guarding the only oceanfront park in Maryland, staff at Assateague deal with the challenges of swimmers caught in rip currents and—of course—wild ponies roaming the beach.

What it takes

In order to be qualified and considered for a lifeguarding position, individuals must successfully pass a swim test and a written exam, as well as maintain the following certifications from nationally recognized agencies in (1) CPR for adults, children and infants, including the use of an Automated External Defibrillator; (2) first aid; and (3) lifeguarding.

Greenbrier; by Tammy McCorkle

Greenbrier; by Tammy McCorkle

On the job

Millions of visitors mean many challenges. Lifeguards undergo rigorous training—with a major emphasis on emergency medical training so they are prepared for a myriad of potential incidents—and continue physical training throughout the season.

Three-year veteran lifeguard, Tyler Walker, describes the sense of camaraderie he feels each summer: “We have such a good trust in each other that makes for a great working environment. This gives me confidence when responding to emergencies because I know we have each other’s backs.”

Between watching over the beach and manning the first aid stations, some lifeguards spend their days roving the park’s other areas. Often, they take the time to educate visitors about the aquatic environment. Many of the waterfront parks offer programs to enhance the public’s knowledge of water safety through activities.

Competition

Any Maryland Park Service lifeguard will tell you that the highlight of the summer is getting to attend the annual Lifeguard Competition. After an intense season, waterfront parks send their best to vie for bragging rights and the ultimate prize; the competition trophy.

They race to complete simulated rescues, relay beach flags and test their endurance in the iron guard swim-run-paddle event. Each round is carefully judged and both individuals as well as teams are recognized for their talents.

 

A day in the life…

You never know when all that training will be the difference between life and death. Early last June, I witnessed it firsthand.

As severe storms rocked the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, a group of off-duty park lifeguards and rangers joined Natural Resources Police officers aid in an overturned jet ski rescue off Sandy Point.

It all started when a young boy ran to us, pointing toward the water and saying a man was yelling for help. The lifeguards and Ranger Maria Reusing ran down East Beach to the water. Meanwhile, I alerted Sgt. James Johnson, who jumped on a patrol boat and called for backup.

With the skies darkening and the winds churning up whitecaps, lifeguard Nathan Cmiel swam toward 17-year-old Oscar Alas, closely followed by lifeguard Isela Hernandez. Reusing went in behind the two of them to relay information to shore.

They didn’t hesitate. There wasn’t a bit of fear in their eyes.

Alas told rescuers that there were four others—his parents, 8-year-old brother and 18-year-old friend—well beyond the swimming area. All five of them, luckily, were wearing life jackets.

While lifeguards brought Alas to shore and assessed his condition, Sgt. Donald Mackall and Officer Kristen McFarland stood on the beach and directed Sgt. Johnson to the location of the nearly submerged jet skis and four bobbing heads barely peeking above the waterline.

After towing the disabled jet skis to shore, Johnson and Mackall raced off in response to another distress call. The storm was coming in so quickly; we could barely see their blue lights return with another family of four. After some minor treatment, all members of both parties were safe and accounted for.

While most days are more calm, these are the circumstances for which our staff train. They’re prepared, they’re skilled and they’re dedicated to the well-being of all guests.

Left to right: Isela Hernandez, Nathan Cmiel, Ranger Maria Reusing, Ranger Alison Woodfield

 

Article by Alison Woodfield—Maryland Park Service customer service manager.
Appears in Vol. 19, No. 3 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, summer 2016.

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