NEW PORT RICHEY
The sunglasses hide plenty. Behind them, eyes scan. They move back and forth, across the water. They watch. They monitor.
Lifeguards, even as a part-time job, are always on guard.
"It is a big misconception on what the job entails," said New Port Richey Recreation Center aquatics manager Lina Cassidy, also a certified lifeguard. "People think it's a job just to sit by the pool and get a tan all summer. One of the hardest things to get across is that it's so much more."
Much more includes at least 30 hours of training to become certified, learning CPR and even how to backboard swimmers. The local fire department sets up surprise scenarios, such as sending someone to act out an emergency situation to make sure the lifeguards are constantly on their toes.
"There's a lot of work that goes into the job, especially in the busy summertime," Cassidy said. "It's funny to see that there's still a lot of people who think they can come in here and not listen to what some 16-year-old told them about their child running on the (pool) deck. Well, they can because they're trained."
Lisa Cunningham, aquatics manager at the Hernando Branch YMCA in Spring Hill, has been a lifeguard since she was 15. She's always been a swimmer, picking up lifeguarding, like many do, as a seasonal job.
That's why Cunningham knows many have Baywatch beliefs when it comes to lifeguards and their red swimsuits.
"You always have to be on your toes," Cunningham said. "Sure, it's not a hard job, sitting and walking around the pool deck, but it can be mentally exhausting. We teach to scan the pool — 10 seconds one way, 10 seconds back — so you always have to be alert."
Cassidy and Cunningham say that most of their lifeguards are high school or college age. Many lifeguards say the job beats bagging groceries or mowing lawns or waiting tables, but can come with its share of stress.
"Getting a tan all day is a perk," said Jessica Fox, an 18-year-old lifeguard at the New Port Richey Rec Center. "But if something happens and one thing goes wrong, it does fall on your shoulders. If you had a lapse or weren't paying attention, then that's on your conscience if something happens to someone."
Cassidy agrees. She says many people who sign up for the lifeguard certification class drop out after they experience the physical work of pool training. Of the 28 people Cassidy had sign up for the class this season, at least 10 left after realizing it wasn't all about the bronze, buff body.
"There's a 'wow factor' and I've seen it many times," she said. "It happens as soon as they get in the pool and can't handle the work."
As far as part-time jobs go, this one comes with considerable responsibilities. It's why Cassidy and Cunningham rotate their guards constantly because the heat, and eventually the lull of nothing happening, can tire the lifeguards, even causing them to zone out a bit.
However, many lifeguards learn over time. Cassidy has been at the New Port Richey Rec Center for 26 years and has developed almost a sixth sense to watching the pool. She can predict, even hear, when someone is about to do something either unsafe or against the rules.
"The only way to make people realize this is a serious job is to give them a dose of reality," Cunningham said. "Would you like to have someone's death on your conscience? No. … You have to keep an eye on the entire pool deck. It's your responsibility to keep people alive."
Community sports editor Mike Camunas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 544-1771.