Aug. 13, 2003 – It's a crowded day at the beach. A teen-age couple is swimming out near the end of the buoy markers, but the girl begins having trouble. She accidentally swallows too much water and begins clinging to her boyfriend. As both struggle to stay afloat, a lifeguard, who has kept an eye on the couple, swims out to them and throws them a flotation device. The young man grabs onto it and the lifeguard tows the drowning young woman to shore, where he immediately performs CPR to revive her. He has just saved two lives.
This sort of scene happens frequently at beaches across America. Lifeguards have a tremendous responsibility. They must be professionally certified in lifeguard training, community first aid, and CPR for the Professional Rescuer — and they must update that training each year.
Most tourists and residents alike assume that Virgin Islands lifeguards have that training and certification. They are wrong.
At three beaches maintained by Housing Parks and Recreation Department — John Brewers Bay, Lindbergh Bay and Coki Point on St. Thomas — two lifeguards could not pass the test for certification, and one lifeguard cannot even swim.
The American Red Cross in the Virgin Islands conducts training classes for lifeguards twice a year. The course is 40 hours in length and is intensive, with seven sections of water tests and a test to demonstrate ability to perform life-saving skills. A pre-course screening requires participants to demonstrate ability to swim 500 yards continuously. You have to finish with a total score of 80 percent to get certified as a professional lifeguard.
In the last course given, earlier this year, all participants passed except for the practicing lifeguards employed by the Housing Parks and Recreation Department, according to Red Cross water safety instructor Gayle Deller.
"There were eight people in the class, and the course was five days a week," Deller said. "Everybody passed except for the people lifeguarding at Coki, Lindbergh and Brewers."
One of these three lifeguards did not show up for the scheduled pre-test, Deller said. However, he did show up for the makeup — but he could not pass the basic swimming exercise of 500 yards.
"He couldn't do it. He never made it, but he's still lifeguarding," Deller said.
"How he's still there I don't understand," she continued. "If you're going to be out there saving people's lives, you better sure be able to swim."
The second practicing lifeguard for Housing Parks and Recreation could not pass the course but also is still lifeguarding, Deller said. The third lifeguard was involved in an accident while driving a taxi and is no longer at Coki Point, leaving that beach without a certified lifeguard.
"Coki is never covered now," Deller said. "And we [the Red Cross] have people who did pass the test and [are] very good who are waiting to go. They are qualified, but Housing Parks is paying people who are not qualified to be lifeguards."
Housing Parks and Recreation Commissioner Ira Hobson said he was unaware that some of his employees working on the beaches are not certified to be lifeguards.
"They have to go through certification," he said, adding that he recalled signing a check for them to take the certification test. "I don't know if the certification for them ran out or not," he said.
In fact, Hobson said he sent a letter to Gov. Charles Turnbull asking for $60,000 for three additional lifeguards on St. Thomas.
Of the one lifeguard who cannot swim, Hobson said: "I’m going to check. If he can't swim, then he's going to find another job."
Housing Parks and Recreation employee Bunni Brothers, who oversees lifeguards, said that all existing lifeguards "have to be up to date on CPR and first aid" in order to remain employed as lifeguards. She did admit to Coki Beach being left unprotected.
"The man had a terrible accident and had to have surgery," Brothers said of the uncertified lifeguard assigned there. "But we have an agreement with the divers over there to look out for people's safety" in his absence, she added. She did not say what the divers would do if an accident happened while they were underwater training would-be scuba divers or conducting them on tours.
Hobson's letter to the governor did not mention that Coki is without a lifeguard.
"The department has three lifeguards on these beaches [Coki, Brewers and Lindbergh] on a seven-day basis, which means that any two days of the week each of these beaches is without a lifeguard," Hobson wrote the governor on July 28. “Governor, I need not tell you the impact it would have on our tourism industry if we have an incident of drowning on a government-owned beach."
Deller said that could easily happen right now without certified lifeguards. She said she believes the whole problem stems from Housing Parks and Recreation officials protecting people who've been there for years, but who are not qualified to stay there.
“I’ve been here for 27 years, and half of the people in government are hired for political reasons or because they are related to somebody," Deller said. "This is different. Here, they are playing with people's lives."

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