Supplement Feature - February 2009
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At the Ready

Staffing Aquatic Facilities

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Rose Bowl Aquatics Center
Pasadena, California

What they have: This outdoor center is open year-round and includes two heated Olympic-sized pools, one for competitive swimming and one for recreation and diving (with a depth of up to 17 feet). There are two diving platforms and both one-meter and three-meter springboards. What was once a kids' pool has been converted to a heated therapy pool, and there are two spas as well.

What they offer: "Our mission is to serve the entire spectrum," said Kurt Knop, executive director. "We truly believe we have something for everybody—if you don't want to get your hair wet or if you want to go to Beijing and swim."

Recent Olympian Jason Lezak trained here, and they hosted the U.S. National Diving Championships last year. They can accommodate patrons in wheelchairs for aquatic therapy, and other clientele ranges from 6-month-olds in parent-infant classes to 90-year-olds on the synchronized swimming team.

Programming includes lap swim, a masters program, water polo, deep water aerobics, and diving and swim team practice. "It's like air traffic control at O'Hare," Knop said.

Staff size: During cooler months, the staff (including lifeguards) is 60 or 70, but in the summertime, with camp in full swing, the staff balloons to 200. Usually there are eight staffers on duty at a time, and in the busiest moments there may be 14 or 15 hands on deck.

"Guard staff are primary responders, but also secondary responders are water polo, swimming and diving coaches," Knop said. "They're all CPR trained, so it's not solely guards out there as the eyes and ears."

Required training: American Red Cross certification is required for lifeguards, and the aquatic center teaches classes on-site. Guards are either certified before they're hired, or they earn certification through the aquatic center's junior lifeguard program. In-services are held monthly, along with "white-cap training drills," which simulate an active rescue. Knop also ensures all his guards get extra training for deep water.

How they make it work: "Even in Southern California, we are an exception in terms of being open year-round," said Knop. And because the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center is an independent nonprofit (without the support of municipal funds), they don't offer the highest pay in town. However, they've been around for 18 years in their current format, and "we offer the benefit of year-round employment," Knop said.

The aquatic center has learned to draw from college students at home for the summer, and Los Angeles-area college students during the school year. And there are lifeguards who want to work year-round. In these cases, Knop provides benefits if guards work at least 32 hours per week. Not many do, but it's a nice perk for his solid standbys.

The aquatic center also offers "a different mix of what [employees are] doing in terms of guarding," he said. "It's not just open or recreational swimming."

The demands on a guard monitoring diving practice are totally different from watching a crowded pool during open swim, and while the average aquatic center visitor is "a more comfortable and confident swimmer, that's not to say we don't have newbies," Knop said.

Or that being an aquatic center guard is "easier" than working elsewhere. Knop makes sure new staffers know what they're getting into, which helps with retention and getting a good match for the positions available.

"Certain applications are universal," he said. "Save and rescue is the same in a six-inch bathtub as a 17-foot dive well, but there are things that we think differ. There's an orientation and walk-through to give [potential hires] an idea of the programming we offer and the scope and range of activities before they sign."

This introduction also lets guards know what they aren't in charge of. The aquatic center offers a variety of specialized programming, from physical therapy to water exercise to activities and lessons for autistic and other special needs children, and these programs are staffed by extensively trained professionals.

A final helpful component is the center's training programs. Interested kids start exploring via junior lifeguard camp, then they're eligible to shadow a lifeguard to learn about the position. Once they turn 16, they go through certification and are ready to work, "but it hasn't been as successful as we hoped," said Knop. "Ninety-five percent of our guards are not from our minor leagues."

However, the lifeguard training classes offered at the aquatic center "definitely help feed our program," he said. Those getting Red Cross training or retesting may just apply for a job since they're already familiar with the aquatic center. But even this is not a guarantee.

"In some cases they get fantastic training here and then take a higher-paying job elsewhere," Knop said.