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Lifeguarding from Miami to Missouri



When the St. Louis Praxair plant blew up in 2005, Puerto Ricans watched it on TV. One on-air comment was that the explosive event had made “international” news. But a few years later, the decision and commitment by Puerto Rico to undertake one of the most ambitious multi-faceted drowning prevention campaigns didn’t attract more than island or industry press.

I heard about this extraordinary effort at the USLA Surf Rescue Training Officer Academy last December. I am a sucker for a good come-from-nothing, triumph-over-adversity story. But what moved me most was the selflessness of so many volunteer lifeguards from coast to coast, who responded to Puerto Rico’s call like it was wasn’t a choice, but a responsibility.

It suddenly dawned on me, all of the possibilities for advancing water safety in the Show-Me State. The only Midwestern participant, I had until then felt somewhat like an island. In the room were some 30 fellow officers or candidates, several from the same agencies, and none of them closer to St. Louis than 1,000 miles. The entire row of six behind me were all from Puerto Rico. Like them, I had come to learn techniques that would prepare my team for the environments and events that BYLG serves. It was logical that I would have to “go coastal” to get this type of training. What I got was a whole other kind of education in a spirit of helping others that helps us in return. And the pleasant surprise that many of my coastline colleagues actually find “inland” quite interesting.

Rescuers GO where they are needed. Last year lifeguard Tomas Lopez drew national attention after he was fired for responding to a drowning outside of his coverage zone. He “crossed a line”. But the USLA training officers involved to date in “Project Puerto Rico” prove that lifeguards don’t let mere lines, whether they be city limits, company policy, organizational bureaucracy, or even a language barrier and a thousand miles of ocean, get in the way of their Duty to Act. We can’t. We can’t legally, and for many of us, we just can’t—ethically or emotionally as well. No lifeguard—nor training officer, it appears—will stand idly by and watch others in distress. That is not the rescuer persona.

Many rescuers are drawn to work like teaching others to save lives as well. If situations can improve by our expertise or involvement, we will gladly contribute those, and more. Often the reward is simply the happiness that comes from acknowledgement, appreciation, and an enlarged professional and social network. Mainland USLA agencies and their participating lifeguards likely enjoy some good publicity and affiliations from their efforts. And organizations with staff members skilled at not only lifeguarding, but teaching lifeguarding, certainly get residual returns as well. It’s okay to benefit from the choice to help others. Harvard Business School calls it “Self-Interested Charitable Behavior”. We call it our job.

Puerto Rico now has its own Surf Rescue Training Officers, and soon they alone will meet their island’s needs, as they should. BYLG has one, and a growing group of USLA colleagues interested in and willing to support and advance our efforts. Because many lifeguards believe that water safety—on an island or far inland—is every rescuer’s responsibility.


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