Shore Thing: La Jolla’s lifeguards work 24/7 to keep beaches safe
Lifeguards in San Diego
■ Seasonal: About 175
■ Permanent: 90
■ Hourly pay range
■ Seasonal: $16.23 to $19.50
■ Fulltime: $23.63 to $31.51
■ Sergeant: $28.54 to $34.49
■ Marine Safety Lieutenant: $34.40 to $41.54
■ Minimum age requirement: 18
■ Maximum age: None
■ Average annual rescues in San Diego: 5,000
■ Website: sandiego.gov/lifeguards
By Pat Sherman
Anyone who thinks La Jolla’s lifeguards have kickback summer jobs should spend an hour with San Diego Lifeguard Sgt. Mike Cranston and his team as they patrol the beaches at Black’s and La Jolla Shores. The latter gets as many as 25,000 visitors per day on Saturdays and Sundays in the summer.
Though some fulltime, senior lifeguard staff can make well over $100,000 a year (when factoring in overtime pay and other benefits), their training and experience make them an invaluable component of the city’s public safety network.
“On days when the rip currents are pulling, we could make 100 or more rescues on one beach in one day,” said Cranston, 38, a Native New Zealander who manages 10-12 lifeguards per day at La Jolla Shores. “If we’ve got 15 or 20 staff making 100 rescues, that’s a lot of physical exertion.”
To be hired as a seasonal lifeguard, working Memorial Day to Labor Day, one must complete a 500-meter swim in less than 10 minutes before he or she is even allowed to interview for the job. Once they pass the interview, applicants are put through a 10-day lifeguard academy.
“We teach them all the basic aspects of lifeguarding — from watching the water to performing rescues with our rescue cans (plastic buoys) and rescue surfboards.”
Afterward comes a series of more rigorous physical tests.
“We need people who are going to be able to make rescue after rescue and never give up,” Cranston said.
One of the most extreme tests requires an applicant to run a mile in soft sand, then swim a mile back in the ocean in under 50 minutes.
Swimming in choppy ocean water requires more endurance than swimming in a pool, Cranston noted. While swimming toward a victim, a lifeguard must keep his or her eyes above the water at all times.
“If you’re swimming toward the victim and you put your head down, you could look up and the victim’s gone,” he said. “It takes a lot more upper body strength to keep your head up out of the water.”
Permanent lifeguards also must learn to endure waters as cold as 50 degrees during the winter, as well as 10- to- 30-foot surf. Though they may wear wetsuits while training, they must wear a standard bathing suit when they test.
“When we’re out here guarding, we don’t have time to stop and put a wet suit on,” Cranston said.
La Jollan Elizabeth Palmer, who has worked as a summer lifeguard since 1995, has taken part in mass rescues, where a rip current pulls 20 to 25 people out to sea at one time.
“We’ve had situations where we’ve deployed every single lifeguard off La Jolla Shores beach into a mass rescue,” she said. “We have to have our units backfill and send people
out to staff the towers.” Joe Maloney, who is in his probationary first year as a permanent lifeguard at La Jolla Shores, recalled a recent rescue on his watch at Muscle Rock, in which the victim required three shocks with a defibrillator and more than 12 minutes of CPR.
“They airlifted him and he’s alive and in ICU right now,” he said. “The medical director for the city of San Diego is calling it a miracle, because he was so far from where we could respond to, but the helicopter got there, we loaded him up and sent him off.”
Maloney said freedivers are often trapped in rip currents and rough, rocky surf near the Children’s Pool — and there is never a shortage of capsized kayaker rescues near La Jolla’s sea caves.
“A set will come in and catch them off guard,” Maloney said. “We’ll see them from up in the observation tower or they’ll notify us on the radio and we’ll launch a jet ski and go pick them up and tow their kayak.”
Advanced training Permanent lifeguards are required to attend a five-week academy that involves training in high-angle cliff rescue, which is frequently utilized at Torrey Pines and Sunset Cliffs.
“When someone’s stuck or fallen, it’s the lifeguards that go to get them,” said Cranston, noting a call earlier this year in which a paraglider crashed into a bluff near La Jolla Farms and died on impact.
“We had to go through people’s backyards and climb over fences just to access the cliff,” Cranston said. “Then when had about 200 yards of bluff to get through before we could get to the edge where the victim was.”
Though lifeguards sometimes call for a helicopter to airlift a victim to safety, they are not used for cliff-bound paragliders, as the gust from the blades could lift a glider’s sail, poten- tially causing them to dislodge and plunge down the cliff.
Permanent lifeguards are also trained as peace officers, possessing a badge and the power to write citations or make arrests, if necessary. They also have a higher level of emergency medical technician (EMT) training, drive boats and jet skis, and assist with river rescues throughout the county.
Lifeguards must also be able to jump safely from great heights. One of their tests typically includes a plunge from the end of the Ocean Beach pier — the highest in the county and the longest on the West Coast.
“I jumped from the Ocean Beach pier just a few months ago to rescue of some gentleman that jumped off trying to impress his girlfriend,” Cranston said. “He dislocated his shoulder in the fall, and he was clinging onto the pylon and cut to shreds from the barnacles, barely able to hold on anymore.”
Lifeguard service is offered 24 hours a day, with two guards operating at night out of the Mission Bay station and two out of the La Jolla station on Nautilus Street.
Each year, fulltime lifeguards are required to complete additional days of training, plus three days dedicated to cliff rescue. San Diego Lifeguard Service maintains a heavy equipment cliff rescue vehicle and crane out of its Mission Bay station.
“It’s not as simple as grabbing a rope and pulling up 400 pounds of people,” Cranston said. “We do more cliff rescues than almost any other rescue department in the world. We want all of our staff to be able to do any of the roles.”
Cranston said guards at The Shores frequently rescue long-distance swimmers from La Jolla Cove who are having a medical emergency, as well as some of the ubiquitous scuba divers at The Shores. All permanent guards and some seasonal guards receive scuba rescue training.
“This is probably the main beach in San Diego County for responding to scuba divers, and unfortunately we do get a handful that are fatalities every year,” Cranston said.
“People forget their training and get into some hairy situations.”
There are only about three or four female fulltime lifeguards at present, who receive salary and benefits, despite a lawsuit last year in which one of San Diego’s top female swimmers won $100,000 in a discrimination case for being denied a promotion after a decade on the job.
“We have an outreach program because we want to get a more diverse workforce,” Cranston said. “It’s healthy to have more diversity so we go out to different job fairs, even starting off in schools to try and get people to come to the beach and see what we do. Hopefully, we’ll attract some of them to become lifeguards.”
Lifeguards must be at least 18 years of age. Though there is no maximum age at which one can join the service, the retirement age, as with other public safety employees, is usually in the mid-50s.
“It’s a very physical job, and it’s not like we’re going to be able to do this forever,” said Cranston, though adding, “some of our older lifeguards who are in their 50s are in incredible shape. We’re expected to maintain a certain level of fitness.”
Though rescues at The Shores are fairly straightforward, lifeguards have their work cut out for them when rescuing people in the waters near La Jolla’s craggy reefs, where there is no beach to return them to.
“You’ve got to figure out how to get your victim back to safety again — and that could involve an incredibly long swim to one of the beaches, or maybe a swim out to the ocean to be picked up by a rescue boat,” Cranston said. “I start to get adrenalized and amped up just talking about it.”
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