“People don’t realize it can happen so fast,” said Dana Damato, 24, who is in her 10th summer working at the Secaucus Swim Center. She is a head lifeguard and also works full-time as the Aquatics Director at the Secaucus Recreation Center.
Damato said she was involved in a rescue at the Recreation Center in which 12 seconds in the pool to help a young girl who was drowning felt like three or four minutes.
The lifeguards undergo two weeks of training to become certified in First Aid, AED, and CPR.
“Five years ago, a boy almost died [at the Swim Center]. We resuscitated him,” said Damato. The boy was at a birthday party and was swimming fine, she said, until one of the lifeguards noticed he was face down. It was uncertain whether he had a seizure. He was taken away in an ambulance and ultimately survived.
Beyond the whistle, sun block, sunglasses, and high perch, lifeguarding has become more than a summertime job for many Secaucus youth. It has become a tradition that cultivates a sense of responsibility and leads to lifelong friendships.
“We just all care about each other.” – Nina Petruzcella
Joy for the summertime job
“I have really come to love lifeguarding,” said Nina Petruzcella, 20. She is a head lifeguard at the Secaucus Swim Center and is in her fifth summer. While some teens may switch jobs each summer, Petruzcella has remained dedicated to her post and this year received a promotion to head lifeguard. She is currently on a summer break from her studies at Rutgers University, where she is in her third year pursuing history education.
“It has been awesome…I’ve never wanted a different job. I come back every year excited,” said Petruzcella.
Dana Damato said, “I’ve worked here for so long that I’ve had kids when I first started that took swim lessons and they are lifeguards here now.” She recalled a boy she met at the age of 8 who is now 18 and works as a guard. Damato is in graduate school at Montclair for education administration. Her career goal is to become a principal.
For Head Lifeguard Stephanie Tedeschi, who is her fifth year, lifeguarding is about staying physically fit. “I played sports all throughout high school,” she said.
Hectic heat-filled days
Head lifeguards like Damato, Tedeschi, and Petruzcella arrive up to an hour and a half before the regular lifeguards to set the schedule for the day. They describe their days as hectic, hot, and busy. On average 12 to 13 lifeguards start each day around 11:30 a.m. by setting out equipment. They work three to four shifts. As the pool gets crowded, more lifeguards are placed on posts.
The head lifeguards walk the grounds, reminding the other lifeguards of the rules and stepping in during an emergency or when someone needs to leave.
“There is really no time to be bored,” said Damato. “Something can happen in a split second.”
Damato said that lifeguards always have their eyes on the pool to watch for anyone who is struggling, goes under, or needs help. Cell phones are not allowed on the chair and lifeguards have been removed from their duty for breaking the rules.
Saves in seconds
This year the Swim Center offers life vest rentals for $5, which Damato said has helped decrease the number of incidents.
“It prevents saves of the younger kids,” said Damato. She said the vests allow older and younger siblings to swim together.
During the Independence Day celebration on July 2, the pool was packed. Whistles went off when a lifeguard on walking duty noticed a girl going under. A team of lifeguards lined up at poolside, and one jumped in to help the girl.
“She started swallowing water and she was yelling, ‘Help,’ ” said Damato.
“You can never be too cautious,” said Tedeschi. “It can take 30 seconds to drown.”
“It is actually empowering,” said Petruzcelli about the responsibility involved with the role. “It is an important job.”
A sense of friendship
While being a lifeguard demands apt attention and responsibility, the Swim Center environment has nourished a group of individuals that feel a sense of camaraderie. Many undergo training alongside friends from school.
“A lot of my friends took the test with me,” said Damato of her training 10 years ago.
“We are really close,” said Petruzcella. “We just all care about each other.”
“We all morph into each other,” said Damato.
Petruzcella had one word to describe her fellow lifeguards: “awesome.”
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.