The learn-to-swim program was one of the most popular and without a doubt the most valuable in terms of public safety and welfare on a lifetime basis. Parents flooded the parking lots and hallways at Town Hall on registration night; one would think we were offering Super Bowl tickets free of charge!
A lesson learned early on was to decentralize registration in favor of our four pool sites. This made it more convenient for parents and less stressful for staff in terms of crowd control. It was a challenge when the Smith family demanded their three kids have session 2 at 11:30 a.m. When playgrounds downsized from 15 to four and quite naturally conducted at pool sites, we did our very best to schedule Johnny at 9 and his sister at 9:30 so they could each do arts and crafts while the other had a swim lesson; parents loved the accommodation.
Sessions were scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon five days a week over a six-week period. To meet American Red Cross criteria, we had to use certified Water Safety Instructors. An annual challenge was to secure enough of them to cover one of the most comprehensive programs in the state. The requirements were more stringent than a lifeguard. Not many college kids had the time or money to make such an investment. It took 45 aquatic staff to operate four pools eight hours a day, seven days a week — 11 hours a day during the learn-to-swim program. There came a time I was able to reduce staff, but I never wavered from the notion that public safety trumped money.
Although we had two or three pullouts annually, I am proud to say in all our pool history we never had a drowning. When one considers over 60,000 pool visitations a season during a 40-year period, it is not only remarkable but an incredible testimony to the dedicated staff, let alone part-timers with no bennies making barely above minimum wage!
We tried a little bit of everything to keep staff sharp. Staring into the water for long periods of time in a lifeguard chair on a hot, sunny day in a crowded pool could be hypnotic. Precautionary measures included limiting the length of time a guard could be in a chair. We also had a floater who walked the pool perimeter until it was his time to ascend the chair. We referred to it as one up/one down.
Another method to keep staff sharp and promote camaraderie, guards and WSIs came in early on their own dime for staff swim meets among the four pools Many were on high school and college swim teams so one can imagine the competition. We also required weekly swim drills and in some cases recertification. We were extremely fortunate to have an aquatic coordinator who was American Red Cross-certified to conduct and re-certify staff. She was a good find!
Each youngster who passed his swim lesson received an American Red Cross certificate. If he or she did not make the grade and if room was available, they could re-up for the next session. It was especially rewarding to watch youngsters progress through the ranks from pollywogs to sunfish, etc. It was personally rewarding when, on occasion, youngsters moved through the learn-to-swim ranks, came to recreational swimming when age appropriate and back to us as lifeguards. One memorable case was a tiny tot swimmer who progressed from lifeguard to WSI to pool manager to aquatic coordinator!
Next week: special programs.