Star-Bulletin Features

Tim Chang, 16, left, and Christine Phillips, 15, put what they learned into action during a rescue simulation.

Juniors save lives

Rescuing people in trouble is a side
benefit to the program that teaches
youths to practice ocean safety

By Keiko Kiele Akana-Gooch

They may be young and scrawny, but don't underestimate them. They may save your life.

At 17, junior lifeguard Melissa McMahon has already saved two girls who fell into a pool at Kaneohe Yacht Club.

Before becoming a City & County of Honolulu lifeguard, Jay Fake, 24, saved several people while surfing at Sandy Beach and Makapuu. He spent four summers going through the junior lifeguard program.

Junior lifeguard graduates Mark Healey and Cara Hemperly made local news four years ago when they saved two tourists caught in a dangerous North Shore current.

With the recent rash of Oahu drownings baffling experienced lifeguards, because many of the incidents occurred in shallow water, the presence of junior lifeguards can mean the difference between life and death.

Christine Phillips, 15, left, and Kari Wilkinson, 14, return to shore after a successful rescue practice. Although many girls take part in the Junior Lifeguard program, few go on to become lifeguards.

"We don't have the resources to guard every beach," said 26-year lifeguard veteran and junior lifeguard program coordinator Mark Cunningham.

Some of the victims died at unguarded beaches, including Portlock and Lanikai.

"We're training (junior guards) to be an extra set of eyes on the island," Cunningham said.

Fake said, "The lifeguards don't see everything." People already in the water may identify and reach a drowning victim before lifeguards.

Some of the people he saved as a junior lifeguard were caught in a rip current or were simply too tired to swim to shore.

"A lot of it is inexperience," Fake said.

That's where the week-long summer program comes in. Besides teaching ocean safety and lifesaving skills -- including CPR, first aid and surf rescues -- kids 13 to 17 years old become more familiar with their strengths and weaknesses in the ocean. While learning rescue skills at either Kalama Beach (Kailua), Ehukai (North Shore), Pokai Bay (Leeward) or Ala Moana Beach, junior guards are also taught to seek professional help from emergency rescuers and to use a floatation device when attempting to save someone.

"It's having the kids be a little more akamai," Cunningham said.

Twenty-year lifeguard veteran and a junior lifeguard instructor Dennis Sallas tells his students: "It's your life and theirs. So many times people get hurt trying to help others."

SUSAN MCMAHON, mother of Melissa and new junior lifeguard Alysha, 13, wanted her two daughters to be comfortable in the ocean and to also know their limits.

"We're surrounded by water here and we should be more knowledgeable," Susan said.

At the same time, she reduces her own anxiety over Alysha's water activities, including swimming and surfing.

"This makes me a lot more comfortable," Susan said.

While Alysha does not plan to become a lifeguard, she said she had been looking forward to taking the class all summer.

"I thought it'd be a great experience about learning how to save people," she said.

And since she loves going to the beach, the skills she would gain from the class might come in handy, as they did for her sister Melissa.

After two days of the program, Alysha said: "So far I really like it. It's a lot of fun."

She's already learned how to save a victim with or without a buoyant device, like a lifeguard rescue tube or surfboard.

BEYOND CPR-SPECIFIC classes, there are no such organized ocean safety programs for people outside the 13-to-17-year-old group, except for younger swimmers like Sallas' son Kila, who can demonstrate exceptional ocean-smarts.

The junior lifeguard program does not set out to turn kids into lifeguards, but, "If we do get future lifeguards out of it, terrific," Cunningham said.

They may get a new recruit out of Dawn Simunovich, a 13-year-old junior lifeguard leader who took three sessions of the class last summer.

"Right now, being a lifeguard would be like a dream," she said.

It's a dream that will have to wait five years until she's old enough to apply for a City & County beach lifeguard position. In the meantime, she'll keep up her lifesaving techniques as a junior lifeguard helper, volunteering her summers to helping the instructors teach and watch the participants. Being the same age or younger than those she's helping has been an experience she's slowly getting used to.

"It's pretty weird having to tell older people to put a board away or not to do that," Simunovich said.

IF SIMUNOVICH'S dream turns to reality, she'll be in the minority of lifeguards on Oahu. Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services operations chief Jim Howe said that of 200 City & County of Honolulu beach lifeguards, only seven are female.

By contrast, 60 to 65 percent of Kalama Beach junior lifeguard participants are female, Fake said.

"It's kind of nice to see the girls are interested in it," he said.

The rest of the program usually sees more guys, Cunningham said. But he has seen an increase in females taking the junior lifeguard program and applying for lifeguard positions. Cunningham attributes the trend to an increase of women in water sports such as surfing and water polo.

Unfortunately, the increase hasn't equated to a large jump in the number of women guarding Oahu's beaches.

"Our performance test is one of the toughest in the country, hands down," Cunningham said. "That is perhaps part of it," he said, trying to explain the phenomena.

Howe said one or two women will usually pass the physical test, "but it's a competitive process. We have to be selective because we're putting people's lives in their hands."

Howe hopes more women will try for the career.

But lifeguard hopefuls like Simunovich, who have taken the junior lifeguard program, have a definite edge on the competition.

Fake, who can attest to the advantage, said, "By doing the junior lifeguard program, I knew what the (lifeguard) test entailed. I felt I had an edge."

Howe said the number of new beach hires fluctuates from year to year, depending on retirements and resignations. Casual temporary hires start at $13.34 per hour. But Cunningham will tell you straight: "You're not going to get rich being a lifeguard."

SALLAS TAUGHT his sons lifesaving skills to enable them to get part-time jobs outside of school. But he doesn't want either of them to make it their career, mainly because of the low-income factor.

"You really got to love the job," Sallas said.

But while it's worth it to save someone's life, he said, Sallas wants his children to be financially secure.

Sons Wailele, 22, and Kila, 11, have taken their father's advice to heart. Wailele is studying on the mainland to become a sports reporter and Kila wants to become a pharmacist. Kila, in his second junior lifeguard session, said, "I could do it for two hours to watch people, but not for an everyday job."

Not only won't it fill your pocketbook, lifeguarding will physically drain you. Try spending eight to 10 hours a day in the full sun, all the while remaining attentive.

"Any lifeguard has big responsibilities," Cunningham said, discounting the widespread stereotype of lifeguards cruising all day in the shade of their throne-like tower, staring at beach babes in bikinis.

A goal of the junior lifeguard program is to demystify the kings and queens of the tower, keeping the communication pathways open between lifeguards and the public.

"We'd rather talk to you than rescue you," Cunningham said.

Fake said a lot of his job involves customer service, so lifeguards need to be friendly and people-oriented.

You don't always get that impression from shows like "Baywatch," which involve at least one dramatic rescue per show with most of the dialogue occurring between lifeguards.

After going through the junior lifeguard program, Simunovich viewed "Baywatch" as an overly dramatic sitcom.

"I think it's kind of funny because sometimes the waves are so big when they show the picture, then you look and it's so small," she said.

2002 Junior Lifeguard State Championships

When: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Aug. 10
Where: Ala Moana Beach Park, Ewa end
Events: 1,000-meter beach run, beach flags, run-swim-run, paddle board relay, 200-meter swim
Why: Prizes donated by surf shops and program T-shirts from Quiksilver

McMahon wasn't laughing when she learned CPR just from watching the show.

Cunningham sees the pros and cons to "Baywatch."

"I think it's made the public a lot more aware of lifeguarding as a profession," he said, while describing some of the plot lines as silly.

Reality-based or not, Cunningham fully supported the show when "Baywatch Hawaii" came to town, hiring lifeguards as extras on the set or as lifeguards for the cast and crew.

WHILE THE ONLY way you can gross more than the $50,000-a-year average and still be a lifeguard is probably starring in a show like "Baywatch," lifeguarding isn't without its pluses. Besides saving people's lives, lifeguards can surf during their break and wear a T-shirt and shorts to work. With re-certification tests required to renew their CPR certification and prove their physical fitness, lifeguards must be physically and mentally in top-shape -- a plus for the health-conscious. Fake doesn't like being stuck in an office, having deadlines or taking work home, which makes lifeguarding ideal.

But Fake also wants to start a family, so he's keeping his career options open. In his fifth year as a lifeguard, he took the firefighters test this year.

Junior lifeguard class is in session with lifeguards Jay Fake, left, and Dennis Sallas providing instruction.

"I'm definitely shopping around. It's tough because money isn't everything."

Aaron Frank, a 21-year-old lifeguard, is perfectly happy where he's at.

"I wouldn't trade it for any other job," he said.

Frank was a three-time returning student to the junior lifeguard program and now, he's a two-time returning instructor.

"I wanted to give back because it helped me out so much."

Since becoming an instructor last summer, Frank is still getting something out of the program.

"It's pretty cool to see the kids keep progressing everyday."

From the very first morning of the five-day program, kids are made to do a run-swim-run, totaling from 300 to 600 yards. The swim is to a buoy or free-standing marker in the ocean, which seems impossibly far at first, but eventually, "they're just going past it like nothing," Frank said.

And while many of the program participants will not seek employment in the field of lifesaving, Frank sees tremendous potential in his junior guards.

"A lot of them can run faster and swim faster than some of the (full-time) guards."

So the next time you go to an unguarded beach, hope that one of those teenagers shredding up the waves or lounging on the sand is a junior lifeguard.

For more information about the Junior Lifeguard program, call Mark Cunningham at 589-2251.

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