For more than the 20 years I have known him, my friend Bob has been a lifeguard. Perhaps that’s how I will always see him. I want to see him that way, because everyone needs a professional role model, and Bob is a great one. In reality, he is so much more: K-12 teacher, summer camp administrator, water-sports instructor, firefighter, EMT, entrepreneur. Curriculum writer, creative problem-solver, critical thinker, split-second decision maker.
Bob has made many heroic rescues. I’ve witnessed some and heard stories of others. I recently met a perfect stranger far from home that provided a thrilling and detailed account of Bob running nearly a mile over rocky terrain and plunging into turbid waters to untangle a man from his kite. That’s Bob. Amazing. Everywhere.
But in the few minutes we spent catching up after Hurricane Sandy, Bob told me about a very different call he had as the storm tide surged. As he and his colleagues tried to reach a family trapped on the second floor of their home, Bob spotted a dune fence rushing toward them in the water. Knowing they would surely die if snarled in it and swept away, his team aborted the rescue, wished the family good luck, and promised to come back when the storm had passed.
Unexpected as it may seem, especially in a story about Bob, it’s a reminder that rescuers MUST take care of themselves FIRST. The would-be rescued should, too, but as we lifeguards well know, often the general public does not make choices toward their own safety. The triathlete unprepared for an open-water swim, the child (or parent) that refuses a life vest, the family that should have evacuated—some will ultimately find they need rescuing.
So we save those that don’t safeguard themselves, despite every warning. We train to go where others would not be safe, take the risks we warn against. And then we sacrifice our victims before ourselves. Why? Because as lifeguards, we’re too important to the greater good. If we are well and able, then there is potential for a good outcome. If we get hurt, our victims have no any chance. There are times when self-preservation, in the critical moments and over the course of our careers, is absolutely appropriate.
When faced with a lifeguard leadership challenge, I may ask myself what Bob would do. Ever certain and unwavering in his commitment to safety, here are some things he exemplifies:
Take care of yourself PHYSICALLY. Eat well, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep. Don’t smoke or do drugs. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. A lifeguard is no good to anyone without a sharp mind and strong body. Be acutely aware and always ready.
Take care of yourself PROFESSIONALLY. Diversify your training. Advancing your skills in education, fitness, health care, emergency preparedness, event management, marketing, and other fields will benefit your lifeguarding (and vice versa) and your income.
Take care of yourself ETHICALLY. Be excellent. All the time. Make only choices you can (or may ever have to) confidently explain. Don’t compromise the safety of your patrons, yourself, or your co-workers.
Lifeguards, find a role model. Hold one another to high standards.
And above all, take care of yourselves out there.