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RNLI Lifeguard Supervisor Jo Thompson

'You've got to be able to make quick decisions that will save a person's life.'

Jo Thompson Lifeguard Supervisor
RNLI Lifeguard Supervisor Jo Thompson
You’ve got to be able to make quick decisions that will save a person’s life.

How did you become a lifeguard?

My brother was a lifeguard supervisor so when he heard me whinging about going back to my summer job at a supermarket after university (where I was studying Sociology and Criminology), he suggested I teach myself to swim and do the lifeguarding course instead. I’d always been sporty and outdoorsy, but my swimming was limited to a fairly inefficient breaststroke. I trained most days and began the job in 2009.

So it started out as a way to avoid a summer behind the checkout?

You could also say that I’ve had a healthy respect for the water since I was little. Once, my sister and I were swimming near a groyne when we were children, and we got caught by a rip. We clung to each other so didn’t get swept too far out to sea and my mum (who was a competition swimmer) rescued us.

In your opinion, what’s the most important quality for a lifeguard apart from physical fitness?

You’ve got to be able to make quick decisions that will save a person’s life – that’s the crux of it. You can’t wait around to consult with your colleagues or your boss when somebody needs your help then and there. A quick, informed judgement is crucial, so it’s a role that suits confident people. You have to be able to strike up conversation with strangers on the beach too and there’s an art to doing that day in, day out without getting self-conscious.

What do you love most about your job?

For me, it’s the people I work with – we love the beach and the great outdoors, we’re sporty and we’re genuinely dedicated to the shared goal of keeping people safe while they’re enjoying the coast. You also meet some wonderful people on the beaches; it’s like a little community. For example at Mundesley the team are very friendly with the lady who owns the beach hut next to our lifeguard station, to such an extent I send her grandchildren postcards when I go travelling.

Any downside to being a lifeguard?

Most of us would say cold, rainy days but I happen to love those! At the moment, I’d say it’s the challenge of finding what to do for work off-season, although as a supervisor I now only have 4 months to fill. A lot of the lifeguards are students, so it’s perfect for them – they can save up over summer and go back to university or travel the rest of the year. Certainly during my first 5 years, I used my downtime to travel, visiting Australia, New Zealand and south-east Asia, and did a couple of ski seasons.

What’s your most memorable day on the beach?

In my very first season, I got posted during Cromer Carnival day – there must have been 15,000 people on my section of the beach with just me, my colleague Lucy and my brother Stu looking after them. We dealt with 30 minor first aids, a major first aid and a rescue and then, in the evening, still had the energy to join in the carnival parade with the lifeboat. It was such a happy atmosphere, such a great way to begin my career.

Do any rescues stick out in your mind?

The 2013 Southwold Swim was a major one. We were called up to lifeguard a 1-mile charity swim just a couple of days before the event, and the day itself saw a series of mishaps – we rescued about 85 people in all, it was carnage! The water was much colder than anticipated. The start of the event was delayed so the competitors were swimming against the tide. And many were expecting it to be less strenuous so were totally unprepared. In the end, we had two lifeboats and two lifeguards out on the water hauling people in, two lifeguards in the shallows and more back on the beach – it was like a conveyor belt of cold, exhausted swimmers. Fortunately nobody was seriously harmed, although ambulances dealt with a few hypothermic patients that day.

What do you get up to in your spare time?

Lifeguarding requires a high level of physical fitness, so I do a lot of running and am also vice-captain at my local surf lifesaving club. I’d love to get back on my snowboard and head for the mountains too, but unfortunately I’m still recovering from a broken collarbone so that’ll have to wait another season.

Looking for your next great opportunity? Find out more about becoming a lifeguard