For the last two years, New Milford's Parks & Recreation Department has given free half-hour swimming lessons.

About 60 children and teens, as well as a few adults, learned how to swim at a low cost because officials believe swimming is not a luxury, but a necessity.

And they will offer them again this summer, beginning July 16-19.

"Everyone should know how to swim, just like everyone should know how to walk on their own two feet," said Eleanor Covelli, the Parks & Recreation assistant director. ... That's why we're here."

In an area surrounded by water, not to mention all the homes with private pools, Ms. Covelli said water safety cannot be stressed enough.

Like most towns in the area, New Milford provides a large array of American Red Cross-certified swim instruction programs. One of Ms. Covelli's goals this year is to hire a bilingual water safety instructor.

The Regional YMCA of Western Connecticut, with branches in Brookfield and Danbury, provides swim lessons, competitive swim teams and lifeguarding courses for those 15 and older.

Stephanie Huber, the Y's aquatics director, said that before someone can enroll in the lifeguarding course, they must be able to swim 22 continuous laps in the pool, or 550 yards.

They must also tread water for two minutes with just their legs, and within 1 minute and 40 seconds swim 25 yards, do a surface dive and retrieve a brick, then swim back holding it above their chest.

They must be able to retrieve underwater objects.

Jeanne DiGiacomo, New Milford Parks & Recreation's aquatics director, said its 15 lifeguards undergo intensive weekly training drills and make changes based on observed water hazards.

A couple of summers ago, just after a boy drowned near the dock despite the best efforts of lifeguards to rescue him, the waterfront staff changed from stationing lifeguards periodically at the dock to putting a full station on the dock.

Lifeguards also use kayaks to patrol the perimeter of the swimming areas to look for hazards or weedy areas.

Ellie Lamb, head lifeguard at the town's Lynn Deming Park on Candlewood Lake, said she loves her job but it comes with a lot of responsibility, since guards must be ready for an emergency at any moment.

Every summer, Ms. Lamb said, the guards rescue children, some who wander away, putting a parent just beyond reach.

One beach rule is parents of young children must remain within arm's reach when they are in the water.

"We're extra eyes, but it all begins with the parent to keep watch on the child and know how well the child can swim," Ms. Lamb said.

Jack Harder, an American Red Cross aquatics specialist, describes lifeguarding as "90 percent boredom and one percent absolute terror when you have to perform."

Drowning can occur within minutes; four minutes without oxygen can leave someone with severe brain damage.

Lifeguards are the "best investment a place can make," Mr. Harder said, "a rather inexpensive way to keep the public safe.";860-354-2274;