Life On The Beach: Earn Me Some Red

How to be a Madison lifeguard (Hint: It's not easy!)

Jun 10, 2011

My name is Elizabeth Kathryn Wingate. From the pretentious sound of that alone, you can bet I’m pretty trustworthy. But I’m also 21, a student at UW–Madison, and an intern for Madison Magazine. And, I'm a lifeguard for the city of Madison. I’ve been certified since I was 16 in both lifeguarding and CPR. Most recently, I’ve earned my Waterfront/Beach Safety as well as my Water Park certifications. I’ve made my share of saves and been through enough “scenarios” to be a demonstration manual. But I’m only one of many.

Speaking on behalf of all my fellow lifeguards here in the city, we are qualified. A typical lifeguard certification class takes multiple weeks to complete with classes running a few hours in length every meeting. There are written tests, swimming tests and skills tests. These classes are the antithesis of a “No Child Left Behind” policy, so if you can’t swim it, you’re done (and would you really want it any other way?). Once you have completed all the skills tests and written tests, obtained your ever-changing CPR/First Aid cards, and paid the incredibly steep fees, congratulations. You’re a lifeguard.

One might assume that after those past few grueling weeks, all that’s left is a job application. Wrong! To apply for a lifeguard position with the Madison Parks Division, only the first step is the paperwork. After that, there are a series of written exams followed by the intensive swim and water skills tests. Apparently, being able to actually save someone matters to Madison. I’ve always been a good swimmer and a good lifeguard, but to put it simply, it was a challenging day.

I got my offer a few days later and was asked to come in for a final interview followed by a novel of paperwork. I thought it would finally be over. I had a kickass summer job. Who doesn’t want to get paid double-digits an hour to sit in a chair and tan? I have never been so wrong in my life.

Preseason training started soon after with pool and beach orientations, uniform handouts, and yes, more paperwork. We also had to take another CPR/AED class as the requirements and procedure change—literally—every single year. So two more days of swim tests, more certifications, and learning the Emergency Activation Plan for everything and anything that could go wrong.

I thought we had finally completed all the steps they could possibly require us to do. That was until I was informed about the twice-weekly in-services. I was about ready to walk out right then and there. One hour per week, we were required to get up, get working and get wet. In addition to skills tests and reviews, we had to swim laps around Vilas Beach swimming area, go on runs and do sprints, circuit training, and so much more. Some days we would go to our stations right before we opened to find a dummy at the bottom of the pool. Let the fun begin.

It seems those extra hours practicing saving someone’s life just doesn’t cut it for Madison. In addition to all we’d already accomplished, we got a surprise scenario during regular work hours. Someone, usually a supervisor’s friend or off-duty guard, would be appointed to fake drown in front of a particular guard to test their reaction time and saving ability. I honestly don’t know what was worse—being constantly on edge and ready to save an actual patron, or the pressure and possibility of saving that stealth scenario faker.

However, as exhausting and challenging as last summer was, I’ll be back again starting opening day, June 10th. What I thought was a nuisance at the time I now realize is incredibly important for maintaining the credibility and safety of Madison’s beaches and the Goodman Community Pool. We are responsible for the safety and wellbeing of every single person who comes to swim and play under our supervision. It took all of us a long time to earn this job and those sexy red suits, and we work everyday to keep them. With that being said, you can bet we are damn good at what we do. Not to mention, we’re an incredibly safe bunch to hang around.


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