Becoming “Whistle Worthy”

So you want to be a lifeguard?


Forget those images you might have in your head of the “glamour” that comes from the summer job of lifeguarding.

For years, this seasonal position has ranked up there with ice cream, baseball, and boating as great all American summer traditions.  Perhaps thanks to movies starring Annett Funnicello or TV shows with David Hasselhoff, the profession of lifeguarding has become something akin to celebrity status for those who take on the position.

Maybe it’s that all powerful whistle or the protective white chalk of sunscreen under the eyes, but the lifeguard has always been seen – for better or worse – as the enviable summertime job – a cross between being able to sunbathe all day and the powerful responsibility of having to save a life at a moment’s notice.

And while the summer season itself may be three months away, those wishing to apply for summer positions of lifeguarding are giving that some thought right now. This is the month where areas like Rocky Gap State Park, Dan’s Mountain and even Constitution Park in the City of Cumberland begin mulling over plans for reopening.

And on the top of that list – hiring new lifeguards.

And among the events still under consideration for 2021 is the annual Maryland Park Service Competition – oh, yes, that’s right – a competition held early in the summer to match skill for skill, wit for wit, swim for swim the best and brightest would-be water rescuers in the area.

More than 50 people – athletically skilled men and women—are expected to compete in this year’s competition - - held in a different state park each year.  That number represents about a third of the 120 new lifeguards expected to be hired in the State of Maryland to protect summer swimmers at the state’s beaches, lakes and pools between Memorial and Labor days.

The yearly competition unites lifeguards, who constantly train, from across the state to compete in a variety of physical and skills-based challenges.

State Park Ranger Katy Barger got her lifeguard certification after she became a park ranger.

“This is a hard job,” she said and added lifeguards must be dedicated, independent and critical thinkers.

In addition to protecting swimmers in the water, lifeguards help folks who become dehydrated and suffer from conditions including heat stroke and exhaustion, said competition event coordinator, Brian White.

Lifeguards, who typically work 40 hours per week and sometimes overtime, are also rule enforcers and as the most visible park workers on the beach, must have strong customer service skills.  When they blow that whistle and wave you from the water, they mean it.  They are not doing that to be mean. The warning is because those hired are taking your safety seriously. First Aid and CPR certified guards also work with kayak and canoe rescues.

Michael Looker worked as a lifeguard for a community pool in Bel Air when he was about 15 years old. Roughly five years ago, he became a lifeguard at Rocky Gap State Park.

This summer, Michael hopes to return to the state park as head lifeguard, where he will manage a team of other rescuers. Before the season even begins, he will have completed a “tremendous” amount of paperwork to ensures the park’s beaches maintain a safe and controlled environment.

“This is a good summer job,” Michael, a biomedical engineering student at West Virginia University. “The park service is a great employer.”

A summer state park lifeguard job can even inspire a rewarding career, said Erica Garver. And she would know.

Erica was a lifeguard at Greenbrier State Park from 2006 to 2011. The job exposed her to the Maryland Natural Resources Police.

“I did a ride-along,” she said of pursuing her interest in the department. That experience led her to become a reserve officer and seasonal park ranger.

Today, Erica Garver is an NRP officer.

“I wish (state park) lifeguards knew how good of a position they’re in,” she said and talked of opportunities to work for the Department of Natural Resources. “You have your first step in (the door).”

And she continues to enjoy her job.

“Every single day is different,” she said. “It’s a good wholesome job for good wholesome people.”

Rocky Gap State Park volunteers Vickie Shaffer and Sharon Miller have helped with activities at the facility since 1992.

“They’re all spectacular,” Vickie Shaffer said of the lifeguards.

“They have a high skill level,” added Sharon Miller.

The park service is thorough when it comes to hiring lifeguards, said Rocky Gap State Park Manager Sarah Milbourne.  In addition to all of their other duties, lifeguards help with the Healthy Parks Healthy People program offered at various state parks to promote physical fitness and wellness.

“We really cherry pick … It takes a lot of drive and expertise,” she said.  

Teresa McGinn, staff writer for the Cumberland Times-News, a sister publication to Allegany Magazine, contributed to this article.


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