“Mom, I got VATted today,” Amy said as she came through the front door. Neither success or defeat was conveyed.
“Oh yeah, how’d it go?” She had told me about some of the other lifeguards getting VATted so I knew what she was talking about.
“I failed. Big time. It was so embarrassing.”
She had been through a weekend of rigorous lifeguard training two months prior and was required to get a certain number of inservice hours each month to ensure her training remained fresh and up-to-date. In addition, she, and the other guards, would occasionally be VATted. This, her first time to experience it, was during her second full week of guarding.
“I was guarding the deep end and there were only three people using it. I knew where they all were and none of them were in the water. One was standing on the edge, one was talking to her friend by the hot tub, and the other was walking to the diving board.” Having been to this pool several times, I pictured the scene in my mind. “So, I’m just standing there, keeping an eye on these people, and this little boy comes up behind me and taps on me. Tap, tap, tap. I look down. He’s about six. He says, ‘That man over there threw a baby doll in the water. Aren’t you supposed to get it?’
“OMG,” I said, knowing how she must have felt. To have a little kid see the baby doll go in, to have him know that she’s getting tested, to have him come and tell her she might just want to rescue it.
“Yeah. So, I only have 20 seconds to get the manikin to the surface. It’d probably been down there for over a minute already. Maybe two. So I jump in and go down for it. And I didn’t have enough air. I couldn’t get it. I had to resurface and try again. And that little kid watched me the whole time. Probably the whole place did.”
“I’m sorry, honey.” I thought back to her training stories. She had brought up real live grown men who were hanging out on the bottom of the pool, waiting to be “rescued.” So I knew she could bring the baby up, that she had the skills to do it.
“So what happens if you fail a VAT?” I asked. I invested nearly $400 for her to become a lifeguard, from the training course to the red lifeguard suits and shorts and guard t-shirts and then the expensive Chaco sandals that would provide enough support for standing all day and wouldn’t fall off when she jumped in for a rescue. I hoped she wouldn’t be fired. More important, though, I didn’t want her to fail, to think she wasn’t competent enough. This was her first real job. It demanded a lot of responsibility for a 15-year-old, but I knew she could do it.
I thought back to my lifeguarding days. I remember taking a course that was several weeks long, but after passing that and getting hired by the city where I grew up, I had no further training. And I lifeguarded for three summers.
“Since I didn’t pass, I’ll get VATted a lot over the next two weeks. And if I continue to fail, I’ll get fired.”
“Oh, I think you’ll do okay the next time it happens. You’ll be ready.”
“Me, too.” Now she sounded confident. “I learned a lot today. I’m kind of glad it happened the way it did because I realize I wasn’t scanning the bottom. We were trained to scan the bottom, kind of like scanning your mirrors in driver’s ed. We’re supposed to do it on a schedule. And I wasn’t doing that. I didn’t think it was necessary since I knew where my three people were. But now I know. I have to do it all the time.”
I loved what I was hearing–not only that she realized the VAT was a good learning experience, but she already knew what to take away from it.
Several weeks later, I had my own experience with the VAT manikin. I was swimming laps at the outdoor pool. The big, busy outdoor pool. The lap lanes are in the center of the pool, a calm, quiet oasis between the crowded shallow part of the pool and the hectic deep end with the diving boards. No one who isn’t swimming laps is supposed to be in the lap lanes and no one’s supposed to cut across them to get from one end of the pool to the next.
I was in the far lane, the one next to the deep end. Whenever I front crawled in this lane, I could see how the bottom of the pool dropped off, right under the rope, sloping from about five feet deep beneath me to twelve under the diving boards. At the end of the lane was a lifeguard stand. When I’d stop swimming to take a breather, I’d nonchalantly check out the guard there, to see how engaged he or she was, to see if I could notice elements of the training that my daughter had told me about.
Sometimes the guards used the stand, sometimes they didn’t and instead stood on the edge, or paced back and forth, moving, watching, scanning.
As I approached the wall, doing breast stroke, on the day I think of as my VAT day, I could see the red of a lifeguard standing near the edge of the pool, a watery figure through my goggles as I lifted my head to breathe. Two quick reports of the whistle, the leaping figure, and the giant splash not five feet from me seemed to happen simultaneously, the wake pushing me sideways, even with the rope there to squelch it, and I knew instantaneously what all of this was about.
The lifeguard had jumped in to save someone!
I took one more stroke and was at the wall, turning my body back and toward the deep end. What was going on? I shoved my goggles up on my cap to get a clearer picture.
But I could see no commotion. No victim. All I saw was the guard, a girl, holding her sunglasses in one hand, the rescue tube in the other. She was treading water, looking at nothing in particular, not for a person in distress or at the bottom of the pool. And she was smiling.
Something was wrong with her. She wasn’t thinking straight. She wasn’t rescuing the victim. She had given up and she was just treading water and… smiling.
Some sort of instinct kicked in in me. My old lifeguarding instinct. My mommy instinct. My teacher instinct. My adult instinct. So much experience, so many instincts, all raring to go. I knew I could help. Plus, I had my goggles! I’d be able to see the entire bottom of the pool!
I pulled the goggles back down over my eyes. And then… then I hesitated.
Maybe I shouldn’t interfere. I didn’t work here. My training was decades old. I could, possibly, make the situation worse.
And then it hit me, why the guard wasn’t trying, and why she was smiling. Why she thought this whole thing was funny.
Her twenty seconds were up.
She had failed. She knew it. And there was nothing to do now but smile and handle it graciously while the crowd looked on.
When I figured it out, I smiled, too. Smiled that I was all raring to save someone.
It was almost a year later, just a few days ago actually, that I went to swim laps at the indoor pool. My daughter was working. Guarding. I watched her for a few minutes. Pacing the edge, scanning, guarding. Really guarding. She was no longer a rookie. She looked good. Impressive. Serious. Professional.
On my way out, in the lobby, I saw this sign explaining about the VAT (Vigilance Awareness Training) manikin. Oh, so that’s what VAT stands for, I thought. The sign was large and it explained why the VAT doll was used, but it was in a corner where, I think, most patrons probably don’t see it.
To me, people need to be told as they enter the pool, need to be made aware, somehow, that the baby doll manikin might be in use. To see someone toss a baby into the deep end or to watch as a guard either does or does not bring the tiny victim up, could result in a brief episode–as it did me–of manikin panickin’!