Being a lifeguard isn't the plum summer job it was once considered to be.
"Years ago, lifeguarding seemed to be more of an 'it' job," said Derric Bolton, safety officer for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. "Nowadays, that's just not the case."
Bolton is in charge of hiring lifeguards for the park authority's five Northern Virginia public pools, which began their expanded summer hours last week. He has hired 130 guards for the summer, just enough to get through high season, he said. It wasn't an easy sell.
Teenagers and college students who once savored the idea of spending their summers on the deck of a pool are instead choosing resume-boosting internships or higher-paid office jobs that keep them indoors and air-conditioned, Bolton said.
At private resorts, large public beaches and hotels, the need for lifeguards has become so great that recruiters are looking overseas, bringing temporary seasonal workers from places such as Eastern Europe and Asia, industry officials said.
The park authority generally has relied on more traditional recruiting methods, leaving stacks of help-wanted fliers at local high schools, signing up the younger siblings of lifeguards of years past and offering a respectable $8 an hour to start.
For Joy Lithgow, 19, a Penn State University student who plans to pursue a medical career, the main draw of lifeguard work is the chance to save someone's life.
"I really like the idea of helping people if they need it," said Lithgow, an Arlington resident home for summer vacation. "I like having that responsibility."
Sitting in a lifeguard's tall chair at the Upton Hill Regional Park pool on a recent afternoon, with a red, oblong rescue cushion in her lap, Lithgow pointed out the route that her eyes travel every 15 seconds or so while the pool is teeming with children.
"I do all the edges," she said. "The typical places the lifeguards miss are the corners."
Watching the screaming, splashing kids, she looks for telltale signs that one is in trouble, she said.
"If they're really young, they'll just freeze up and their eyes will get really big," Lithgow said. "If they're older, they might actually draw it to your attention that they're in trouble."
Over the years, the park authority has been able to hire enough guards from within the Northern Virginia community, said Jimmy Lyon, park ranger at the Bull Run Regional Park pool in Centreville.
"A lot is by word of mouth," Lyon said. "And the friend network is just incredible. In some families, I've had sibling after sibling working for me."
Among his recruits is Michael Healy, 22, a Northern Virginia Community College student who spends his summers at the Bull Run pool.
Healy said his parents were lifeguards as young adults, as were three of his brothers, all of whom have worked for Lyon. A younger sister, Mimi, 14, works as a cashier at Bull Run and hopes to be promoted to lifeguard when she turns 16. The youngest, 11-year-old Frankie, has been named an honorary "junior lifeguard" while at the pool.
"Honestly, working at the pool is so nice," Michael Healy said. "It's a great place to come back to every year."
Healy said he once revived an unconscious boy by pumping the water out of his lungs with a sharp squeeze to his abdomen. It was one of his proudest moments, he said.
Aspiring lifeguards at any of the park authority's five public pools have to be 16 or older and must demonstrate that they can swim 200 meters without stopping and retrieve a 10-pound brick from the deepest part of the pool to which they are assigned. They must then complete a written test and a week-long rescue course, which includes first aid and CPR training.