'This is a wonderful place to be': A day in the life of a Vancouver lifeguard
Vancouver's outdoor lifeguards deal with a lot more than drownings as part of their daily routine
By Maryse Zeidler, CBC News Posted: Aug 20, 2017 10:00 AM PT Last Updated: Aug 20, 2017 10:00 AM PT
Craig Amundsen is scanning Vancouver's Kitsilano Beach for signs of trouble.
The 50-year-old head lifeguard at the beach has been doing this job since he was 16.
During the rest of the year Amundsen holds a desk job working various government relations contracts for politicians and government agencies. But the lure of the beach is too strong to keep him away for long.
And his years of experience and training have taught him what to look for before anything gets out of hand.
"We take a pretty proactive look around the beaches for just safe beach behaviour — and we try to watch for unsavoury behaviour too," he said.
Amundsen is one of the Vancouver Park Board's 180 outdoor lifeguards who guard the city's beaches and pools from May to September.
While thousands of locals and tourists alike flock to the city's seaside to enjoy the precious golden rays of summer, lifeguards like Amundsen are there to keep them safe — and, more often, to keep the peace.
Water rescues are just a small part of their job. In his decades of experience, Amundsen has only had to rescue four or five people from the water.
A typical day for Kitsilano lifeguards like Amundsen starts at 11:30 a.m. when they haul out equipment like rowboats and scan the beach for dangerous debris like needles and broken bottles that may have washed up on shore.
He says needles are more of an issue at downtown beaches like English Bay, but they do wash up from time to time at Kits, along with a variety of items ranging from sunglasses and flip flops to used menstrual products and condoms.
"You get gifts from the sea all the time," he said, smirking. "The beaches are popular for lots of people for lots of purposes."
Most of what Amundsen and the other lifeguards are doing is constantly scanning the area for people who look uneasy in and around the water.
A self-described people person, Amundsen isn't afraid to go up to them and offer advice or warn them about hazards like sudden drop-offs and rocks. This type of work, he says, is key to preventing drowning.
"Whenever you find somebody who's done a lot of rescues they're not doing their job very well," he said.
But his biggest source of concern is young children — and their parents.
Too often he sees parents sitting on a log, unwilling to get in the water with their toddler, who could easily topple over and get distressed.
"You don't get to think the lifeguards are your babysitters," he said.
Another major part of a Vancouver outdoor lifeguard's work is watching for and dealing with unruly behaviour at the beach.
Drinking isn't allowed on the city's beaches. Amundsen says that although lifeguards are generally lenient they will get involved if people start disrupting other beachgoers.
This usually starts with asking anyone who has imbibed too much to leave, and can escalate to calling for backup from police officers who patrol the beaches by bike or quad.
"A lot of the time people don't necessarily make good decisions," he said.
"Our job is to help people sure they make better decisions and if they don't we're here to help them."
Amundsen says lifeguards once had special constable status and could make arrests but although that privilege may technically still be on the books, they no longer do.
Other times lifeguards are dealing with people experiencing mental health issues, or grappling with more serious behaviour like surreptitiously videotaping young women or children.
"Sometimes the job is about being a social worker and talking to people about whatever is troubling them," he said.
Water rescues do happen, though.
Just a few weeks ago, Amundsen says, lifeguards had to help an open-water swimmer who panicked when the cold ocean inhibited her movement.
Even good swimmers can experience a sudden health crisis like a stroke or a heart attack.
"People can slip under the water very, very quickly, and people don't appreciate that," he said.
Despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, Amundsen keeps coming back to work at the beach each summer.
"I love to get my toes in the sand at the beach every year," he said.
"It's positive work. You're out interacting with the public and you're doing something promoting safety."
Last November, Amundsen travelled to Buckingham Palace, where he was recognized for his volunteer work with the Royal Life Saving Society and honoured with the Prince Michael of Kent 125th Anniversary Certificate of Merit.
He hopes to encourage his three daughters to become lifeguards one day.
"When you look around, this is a wonderful place to be."
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