RUSSELL IS...An assistant pool manager
When Annie Bergmann first approached me about this idea for a RUSSELL IS... story, she wanted me to be a lifeguard for a day.
There was just one problemI can't swim.
I can kind of thrash around for a while and probably dog-paddle a short distance to safety. But I am not a good swimmer. Worse still, I have severe Aquaphobia, defined by Webster's dictionary as 'an irrational fear of water, specifically fear of potential consequences of entering the water (i.e., drowning)...'
Don't get me wrong - I take a shower most days. But I don't like oceans, lakes, ponds, or even swimming pools. I lived in Southern California for 30 years; went to the beaches hundreds of times. Never went in the water. Get on a cruise ship? No way. Fish off a boat on a lake? Not if I can help it. I'll only fly across an ocean if it's a night flight and I can't see the water, and the plane has an ample supply of Jack Daniels.
Being an Assistant Pool Manager meant I would have a management job, and who doesn't want to be the boss? So RUSSELL IS... An Assistant Pool Manager.
It takes about 15 hours and 333,000 gallons of water to fill the Concordia Municipal Pool (CMP). Draining the pool at the end of the season requires three full days.
"We drop the chlorine levels to zero before sending it through the lines to the treatment plant," said Ron Copple, Concordia's Public Works Director.
A public works employee tests the pool water every morning and every evening. Copple himself inspects the pumps and does a safety check twice a week, testing the bolts on the slides and diving boards and looking for things like algae in the water. "The lifeguards perform these same checks throughout each day," he said.
CMP looks a lot different than it did a few years ago. A fish slide was recently added in the baby pool, as well as a double flume slide in the adult pool. At the beginning of this year the yellow family slide was also installed.
But water is the key. It takes a lot to keep 333,000 gallons of water at the required safety levels. Aside from incidents when someone gets a bloody nose in the pool or even diarrhea - yes, it has happened - the human body emits contaminant all day long, even if it's just skin cells shedding. If there are a lot of people in the pool, that's a lot of contaminant.
"If you've got a pool in your backyard," Copple said, "then you know that adding chemicals and keeping the PH balance just right is a daily process. In an average year we'll spend $17,000 just on chemicals."
The CMP is not a money-making operation. The revenue it brings in from daily admissions, season passes, or even pool parties is not enough to cover its operating expenses.
"It's the same as us maintaining the parks and other recreation areas in town," Copple said. "We do it so the community has something nice to enjoy. I'm really proud of our pool and the staff there. I honestly think we have the nicest pool anywhere around this area."
There's a lot that goes in to keeping the pool running, and getting it ready for business each day. Lifeguards shoulder most of the burden. If you think being a lifeguard means you sit in a chair all day and get a nice tan, you are seriously mistaken. They put in several hours of hard work before they ever climb a 'stand' - a lifeguard chair - to monitor the safety of patrons in the water.
There are 18 lifeguards, four head lifeguards - Allison Poore, Jaden Wilson, Erin Meyer and her sister Laura - and 2 front desk personnel. All the lifeguards are Red Cross certified and have received First Aid and CPR training.
Lifeguards must swim 300 meters each morning to build their strength. The distance increases each week until they reach 450 meters, which is nine laps back and forth across the pool. I tried it. I made it one-half of a lap before I tired out.
The core of lifeguard training is performing a variety of different saves. It could be a conscious or unconscious person disabled in the water. Approaching someone in full panic mode and flailing their arms is a dangerous undertaking for a rescuer. If the person is unconscious in the water, are they on their back or face down, because that determines the type of save that needs to performed. Is the person submerged? Is it an adult, a child, a toddler? What caused them to be disabled: a seizure, stroke, heart attack? Did they hit their head, injure their neck or spine? Are they bleeding?
Lifeguards must instantly factor in all these variables as they swing into action during an emergency.
I watched an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) drill. Jaden Wilson and Laura Meyer portrayed the victims. For this drill the victims had gone down the yellow slide and were now floating unconscious in the water, one on her back, the other facedown. A whistle blew three times, loud and sharp, followed by a single sustained whistle that alerted all other lifeguards that an EAP had been activated. In a real EAP, a staff member would immediately dial 911 to get an ambulance and EMTs to the facility.
Six lifeguards - Erin Meyer, Max Charbonneau, Terin Rundus, Aidan Poore, Zoe Bechard, and Terryl Loeffler - swung into action. Four went in the pool, two to each victim. Rundus and Poore's victim was unconscious and not breathing. They slid a backboard underneath her body and Charbonneau lifted the board out of the water, then all three began CPR. Meyer and Loeffler's victim was conscious but sustained a neck injury. A backboard was placed beneath her body and then Bechard secured a neck brace around the victim's head to prevent it from moving. Only then did Loeffler assist Bechard in lifting the board on to the deck.
It was impressive to watch the CMP staff respond to the simulated crisis.
"I've had a lot of parents tell me that they know their kids are safe when they bring them to the pool," said Annie Bergmann, the pool manager. "Im proud of the staff we have here. I'd stack them up against the pool staff in any other town."
Cydney Bergmann, Annie's daughter, is the real Assistant Pool Manager, and my guide for the week. A day at CMP begins at 8 a.m. with swimming lessons taught by the lifeguards. Noon to 12:50 p.m. is reserved for adults to swim laps and get in their water exercise. The pool's operating hours for the general public is 1-7 p.m., but it stays open every Tuesday from 8-10 p.m. for night swimming. Kids under four years of age get in free, but any child under the age of eight must be accompanied by someone 15 years of age or older. Any senior citizen 65 or older also gets in free.
Auxiliary work begins at 11 a.m. Lifeguards must vacuum the bottoms of the pools and skim the water with nets to collect small debris like leaves that have blown in overnight. They also spray down the 'deck' - the concrete around the pools - and put up umbrellas over the stands and chairs around the tables. There are also really fun chores like cleaning the bathrooms, washing all the windows, spraying down the slides to protect the plastic and fiberglass from the sun, and watering the plants.
There are eight lifeguard stands around the pool. Lifeguards go 'on the stand' at 12:55 and a whistle blows at 1 p.m. to open the CMP for business.
Lifeguards are on each stand for 15 minutes, and then rotate to another stand. They will do 4 rotations - 1 hour total - and then take a fifteen minute break from the sun and heat.
Heat is the biggest issue. Sunscreen provides protection from the sun's harmful rays, but there's no escaping the heat. During one five-day stretch in mid-July the temperature was over 100 degrees and the heat index hovered around 112. On the deck the ambient heat radiated at over 120 degrees.
Aidan Poore worked four of those days in a row. "That was kind of a miserable week," he admitted. "You got to make sure you drink lots of water."
Head lifeguards constantly patrol the facility, keeping the lifeguards supplied with ample amounts of cold water. They also provide back-up for any behavior or discipline problems with a patron.
Overall, the lifeguards enjoy their jobs.
"I really like the job because people are relying on you to help them out if there's a problem," said Jacob Rosenbaum. "We're trained to handle things, and that makes you feel good."
"I like working outside and interacting with people," said Erin Meyer. "And stuff like the First Aid training we receive is for life. We'll always have that knowledge and experience."
But when that heat index bubbles over 100 degrees, it makes some days difficult. "The heat and the sun can be hard," said Britany Gilkeson. "I'm Irish, so I burn easily."
All lifeguards at any pool in any town anywhere all have the same common complaint: people, young and old, don't obey the rules. Some even go out of their way to see how far they can bend the rules.
"I don't think a lot of people realize that we didn't write these rules," said Cydney Bergmann. "They're guidelines put down by the Red Cross and the city. The rules are there for the safety of everyone who uses the pool."
Those rules include closing the pool during inclement weather. The staff constantly monitors the weather, and in Kansas that means a closure can occur in an instant.
"If there is lightning within 15 miles, we are required to evacuate the pool immediately," said Annie Bergmann. "It has to be a total evacuation; everyone must leave the facility."
There was no inclement weather for my assigned day as an Assistant Pool Manager. By eleven o'clock in the morning the sky was bright blue and the deck was already radiating the kind of heat that promised a hot afternoon. My shift began with auxiliary work. A pool manager has to know how to do every job, so of course the first job Cydney Bergmann assigned to me was cleaning the bathrooms. Chloe Conway supervised, and after some grumbling I scrubbed the sinks and toilets. Gotta say, when I was done, those toilets were so spotless Conway and I high-fived each other through sterile gloves. My next task was to help Terryl Loeffler put up the umbrellas on the guard stands, and move the portable guard stand into position near the diving board. So far so good. Erin Meyer showed me how to raise the flags on the flagpole, and then I helped her sister Laura clean the front entrance. I was still rolling along with no glitches. Then I had to help Abby Fredrickson spray down the deck. When she handed me the water hose I 'accidentally' sprayed Fredrickson, Cydney, and Meyer.
A few minutes later Meyer said I needed to squeegee water off the deck into the drain. She handed me the squeegee and pointed to a corner of the brick wall. I should have known better. I was pushing the overflow to the drain when I got hit with a torrent of cold water from the hose. Backed into the corner I had no way out, and the water kept coming until my clothes and tennis shoes were thoroughly soaked. Fredrickson was holding the hose and Meyer was standing next to her, both of them laughing so hard their faces were red.
At 12:55 the whistle blew and the guards went to their assigned stands. At 1 p.m. the pool opened for business. It was a good early crowd, with the temperature around 90 degrees. I assisted head lifeguard Allison Poore as we brought the lifeguards ice water and did a safety check of the pool.
At 2 p.m., with my floatation device in hand and fanny pack filled with First Aid supplies, I officially took a seat on Stand #6 for a shift as a 'lifeguard'. Since I really had no idea what I was doing, Cydney Bergmann stood next to the stand in case someone actually needed help. I spent a few minutes surveying my area of responsibility. The water was crystal clear; lots of kids and a few adults were enjoying themselves, splashing around and making good use of the slides. Peals of laughter rang through the air; everyone was having a good time. As the minutes ticked by I felt a growing need to blow the whistle at someone, but everybody was behaving properly. Finally, I imagined I saw a rule being broken and blew my whistle at some innocent kid who did nothing worse than wave at me. Since I didn't know what rule he'd broken, I relied on my football knowledge and said: "You were offsides. That's a 15 yard penalty and loss of a down."
I was proud of the fact that I had enforced a rule that didn't exist, until Cydney pointed out that no one heard my whistle because I put it in my mouth upside down.
More time passed and everyone remained well-behaved in the pool. It's hot on those stands. I was getting thirsty, and hungry. All lifeguards carry a walkie-talkie, so I used mine to call Gambino's and order a large pepperoni pizza delivered to the pool. I told them to bill it to Erin Meyer.
By 3 p.m. my shift was over and I called it a day. I was satisfied that during my stint as an Assistant Pool Manager no major disaster had occurred.
While doing this story I was truly impressed by the extensive safety knowledge and rescue training the lifeguards possess, and their skill and expertise at handling a wide variety of emergencies.
I visited two other pools in the area - I won't say which towns - and neither one could hold a candle to the Concordia Municipal Pool in both the appearance of the facility and the quality of the water. The CMP management staff and lifeguards are second-to-none.
A tip of the hat to the hardworking staff at CMP, and a special thanks to Annie and Cydney Bergmann for their assistance and patience while this story was put together.