When I am appointed Florida's commissioner of education, the first thing I'm going to do is make junior lifeguard training a required curriculum, right along with reading, writing and arithmetic.
Some of you might consider this a bit extreme. But as a surfer, open-water swimmer and former ocean lifeguard, I know how unforgiving large bodies of water can be.
In St. Petersburg, we have Tampa Bay to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west. From a larger, statewide perspective, you can add the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay. When you live on a peninsula, water likely is a facet of everyday life.
So this month, instead of letting my 8-year-old son sit home watching cartoons and playing video games, I took him to Fort De Soto and enrolled him in a camp that might some day help save his, or somebody else's, life.
Feeding the ranks
Pinellas County began its junior lifeguard program 10 years ago.
"We were having a hard time finding qualified (lifeguard) applicants," said Jim Wilson, the chief ranger at Fort De Soto. "The job is a lot more challenging than most people think."
Since county officials couldn't find enough lifeguards in the community, they decided to grow their own.
"It is an excellent feeder program," Wilson said. "We have had numerous kids who have gone through the program, come back and end up working for us. They have been some of our top guards."
The United States Lifesaving Association, a national agency that promotes lifeguard standards and training, has guidelines for junior lifeguard programs. Most take place during the summer for ages 8 to 16.
Applicants must be physically fit and pass an open-water swim test. During a typical day, the junior guards may run, swim, surf and learn first-aid rescue techniques.
They learn not only how to survive, but thrive, in Florida's marine environment.
Working body and brain
After two weeks at lifeguard camp, I quizzed my son, Kai (his name means "ocean" in Hawaiian), about what he learned.
He said he needed to swim, run and paddle more to get in shape for next summer.
"It is hard," he told me. "I was tired every day when I got home. But it was a good tired."
He also learned about teamwork. Lifeguards never work alone. They are part of a unit, and that unit is only as strong as the weakest member.
A good lifeguard must be able to react instinctively, but more important, have the knowledge and experience it takes to prevent dangerous situations.
"You have to be careful in the ocean," Kai said. "There are a lot of things that can happen. You have to use your noggin."
Sun power to shark hours
Junior lifeguard camp is over for the summer (watch the county's Web site next spring for sign-ups), but here are some lessons taught to pass on to your little ones.
• Be mindful of the sun. A heat-related emergency, such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke, can occur on any warm day, especially after strenuous activity. Drink plenty of fluids, even when you don't feel thirsty. Wear a hat, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing and don't work too hard during the hottest part of the day.
• Sharks live in the ocean and gulf. But despite Wednesday's incident in which a teenager was bitten by a shark in Boca Ciega Bay, your chance of being attacked by a shark is slim. Even so, play it safe, and don't swim at dawn or dusk. Stay away from river mouths and passes. And if you do swim, do so with a friend and within clear view of a lifeguard.
• Watch for treacherous currents. Our local beaches seldom experience the dangerous rip currents that plague so many East Coast beaches. Nonetheless, four out of five rescues on America's beaches are the result of rip currents. If you are caught in a rip, don't fight it. Swim parallel to shore until you feel the current slack. Then swim into the beach.
• The biggest danger in local waters now through the end of the summer is seldom seen — until it's too late. The Southern stingray likes to sit under the sand. They usually keep to themselves as they forage for food — unless a human steps on them. You can avoid a trip to the emergency room by shuffling your feet as you move. Rays feel and hear you coming, then move away. Hence, the common phrase, "do the stingray shuffle."