On Guard

(June 7, 2019) It might come as a surprise to learn that one of the most important skills a lifeguard uses is the scan.

It is a skill they are taught, practice and use all day long. It literally becomes a part of who they are.

I have heard many guards say they can’t go on a beach even on a day off without scanning.

The guards are constantly scanning their area and the water in front of them for signs of danger. It includes a 360-degree area around their stand not only in the front, but also in the back to the dune line.

This is the time of the year when trouble could be lurking behind their stands. It’s what some endearingly refer to as the “June Bugs.”

The trek to Ocean City to enjoy their new-found freedom is a tradition thousands of graduates participate in each year. I did it as a high school graduate and my children did it as well. We survived.

The typical graduates are full of confidence and feel immune to any dangers. They sometimes allow the excitement of the atmosphere to impede their judgment just enough to get them into trouble.

When we get a warm sunny day, the water temperatures are inviting. If you add a town full of celebrating graduates to the mix, the lifeguards have their work cut out for them.

At no other time of year do we see more teenagers chase each other down the beach and into the ocean only to end up diving into shallow water.

The more experienced among them dive shallow and usually do not suffer any consequences of this risky behavior. The less fortunate will spend the rest of their vacation trying to explain the scabs on their forehead and nose. The really unfortunate will not be able to run or dive, ever again.

While beach patrol members respond to spinal injuries every year, none are more tragic than those that occur when young people are injured from diving into shallow water.

It is not their age so much, but the fact that these injuries are so preventable that makes them particularly tragic.

Beach patrol “Rule Number One” is: “Keep your feet in the sand until the lifeguard’s in the stand.”

Rule Number Two is: “Check the water depth with your feet, not your head.”

Our ocean water is not as clear as pool water and we don’t have the depth printed along the edge in big black numbers like it is at the local swim club.

While lifeguards try to stop accidents before they happen, even whistle blasts sometimes don’t catch the attention of those who are horsing around and chasing each other.

Surf rescue technicians are often left cringing in their stands, hoping that those who just dove into the foot-deep water will pop up unscathed.

This is usually followed by what we call an impromptu beach safety presentation (EDU – the semaphore abbreviation for education) as the closest lifeguard explains the dangers of their actions.

While 40 percent of spinal injuries occurring in the surf are caused by people diving into shallow water, the majority result from body surfers and body boarders riding waves that are breaking too close to shore.

We encourage people to keep their arms stretched out in front of them when body surfing, and to avoid riding waves that are breaking close to the sandbar or beach. We hope that everyone who visits our beach will enjoy many happy, healthy returns.

The Ocean City Beach Patrol has worked with trauma doctors to develop a specialized technique to manage suspected head, neck and back injuries.

Although every surf rescue technician is trained and skilled in the use of these techniques, it is far better for our beach patrons to have injuries prevented rather than treated.

Taking responsibility for your own actions and spreading the caution about spinal cord injuries is the greatest form of prevention we have.

Many people do not realize that wet sand is just as unyielding as concrete and that it is the bones of the spinal column that cause the damage and possible paralysis that results from the impact of your head, neck or back with the beach.

Most people would never think of attempting a flip in the middle of a parking lot for fear of striking the ground. However, many of these same individuals will attempt these aerial maneuvers on the beach or into a few inches of ocean water, with the all too often result, of witnessing our spinal injury management technique first hand.

Please, use your head to protect your spine and think before diving or riding breaking waves into the beach. Have fun but remain safe!

An additional factor that has a major influence on risky behavior both on the beach and throughout Ocean City is the addition of alcohol to celebrating teenagers.

Not only is this an illegal activity that could follow someone for many years, but it is also a contributing factor for most of the risky and poor behavior exhibited by a small minority of these youthful visitors each season.

These recent graduates have worked there entire school careers to achieve this new found freedom, and we do not want that freedom to end in Ocean City. Graduates, remember to have fun but please, “Play it Safe!”

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