As all lifeguards know, and many witnesses discover, most drowning people do not shout for help. But in 2007, that’s exactly what happened when the tiny island territory of Puerto Rico called out to the United States Lifesaving Association, “Help us! Our people are dying.”
Puerto Rico, with few lifeguards to cover 130 miles of coastline containing over 150 beaches, plus a number of rivers, lakes, and swimming pools, was in trouble. There, drowning occurs year-round, with residents making up the overwhelming majority of victims. The high drowning rate is a crisis affecting the public health, the national image, and the commonwealth’s economy.
Like any good lifeguard, the USLA responded. Five years later, after countless volunteer hours of research, study, analysis, negotiation, and a customized training curriculum, two 40-hour USLA surf rescue academies were held in Puerto Rico in the spring of 2012. The training team was led by Lieutenants Jim McCrady and Gio Serrano of Fort Lauderdale Ocean Rescue. Among the Training Officers was José “Tony” Landrua, a New Jersey hospital administrator turned Florida lifeguard, now employed with Pompano Beach Ocean Rescue.
The inaugural class included lifeguards from the Puerto Rico’s national parks, police officers, surfers, and locals. Following its completion, the program was described as “the most significant event ever, related to lifesaving and marine safety in Puerto Rico,” one that would mark the history of water safety in Puerto Rico as “before” and “after” the initiative. The job of reducing drowning, formerly attempted by a handful of lifeguards with low morale and limited equipment, is now seen as a competitive position of prestige, and many young people in Puerto Rico set Surf Rescue Training Academy attendance as their goal.
It takes cooperation and commitment to defeat an epidemic. In this case, it has taken dedicated lifeguards from the mainland southeastern United States willing to donate their time and talent to educate their colleagues. It has taken the support of their respective employers, many of them municipal agencies, who release their experienced and knowledgeable staff members to perform such important outreach and service work. Said USLA president Chris Brewster, “This most recent Puerto Rico initiative is a model of USLA collaboration to enhance lifesaving and reduce drowning.”
So far, Puerto Rico has made amazing progress in drowning prevention. Subsequent training academies conducted by local and visiting USLA Surf Rescue Training Officers have prepared nearly 100 lifeguards. The island’s comprehensive water safety program now includes such “layers of protection” as consistent policies, preventive strategies, warning systems, leaflets and signage, public education, swim instruction, and a thriving Junior Lifeguarding program. All accomplished in just one year.
So what does lifesaving in Puerto Rico have to do with BYLG? The estimated distance between Puerto Rico and Miami is 1,018 miles. Interestingly, the distance from Miami to Missouri is about 1,081 miles. So given the space between BYLG and our year-round Florida colleagues, St. Louis may as well be Puerto Rico. And given the difference in climate and terrain, Missouri may just as well be Mars.
Why should it matter to people in St. Louis what happens in the water some 2,000 miles away?
Read Part Two on Wednesday and find out.