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The life of the lifeguard: Park district puts swimmers in well-trained hands

Preston Olson, a lifeguard at Riverside pool, watches his section as kids dive into the pool on Thursday, July 6, 2017. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)

A veteran lifeguard and Hawaii native, Preston Olson knows that a paycheck and suntan aren't necessarily the most rewarding part of working as a lifeguard.

"The kids. Definitely the kids." Olson said. "Even if you're just lifeguarding you get to see families just talking to each other, having a good time, making memories. Seeing smiles on their faces really makes me want to come back everyday to work."

Visitors of Grand Forks' Riverside and Elks pools are in the trained hands of 25 Red Cross certified lifeguards as they splash around the local pools this summer. The total includes 21 lifeguards and four supervisors.

The Grand Forks Park District is responsible for recruiting, training and staffing lifeguards for the two local pools. According to Lisa Rollefstad, sports and recreation manager at Choice Health and Fitness, who oversees outdoor pool staffing, employees are found in a variety of ways.

"We have pretty close relationships with the swim teams in town so we would get a lot from them sometimes," she said. "And a lot of it's just word of mouth."

A recent move by UND could make recruiting more challenging. Rollefstad said that UND's decision to cut its swim program has decreased the number of college-aged lifeguards in town.

Before being hired by the Park District, applicants must complete a comprehensive Red Cross certification program which includes a curriculum of CPR, first aid, spray park and deep water procedures in both practical and written forms. Certification is valid for two years and can be completed at Choice Health & Fitness, the YMCA, UND and Red River High School. In addition to holding Red Cross certification, all lifeguards attend orientation at the start of the season and one-hour training sessions every two weeks.

Because of the seasonal nature of the job, Rollefstad says these sessions are vital to keep staff prepared for times of crisis.

"They're just kind of reminders on what do we do, where we put kids, how we get them home safely," she said.

Rollefstad noted that a majority of the emergencies that occur at the pool are weather-related.

However, being an effective lifeguard takes more than just knowledge. People who are detail-oriented, good with kids, confident and vocal are the types of people Rollefstad said make for the best guards.

Olson has been a lifeguard in Grand Forks for five years and now works as a supervisor, a position that can only be filled by guards with two years of experience under their belt. He spends less time in the water and more time managing customer service aspects of the pool. Olson has a background in swimming, with three years of swim team experience, and says it is natural for swimmers to work as lifeguards.

Lifeguards are generally shared between both Riverside and Elks pools and work 20-30 minute shifts before rotating, depending on how hot it is that day.

Elk's pool, the smaller of the two pools, keeps four guards on deck on summer's busiest, hottest days. Riverside, larger in size with its baby pool and diving area, requires five or six guards on those same days.

As Rollefstad says, "You can never have too many."