Rescue of the Year Award: Lifeguard James Earnest saves swimmer near Marine Street

A harrowing rescue off the coast of La Jolla earlier this summer was recognized by the San Diego Fire & Rescue Department as the Rescue of the Year (by a seasonal lifeguard). The feat required fast action by La Jolla guard James Earnest, who credited the happy ending to listening to his gut, knowledge of the ocean conditions in the area, and a bit of good luck.

Involved with the lifeguard service since 2011, Earnest comes from a family of lifeguards, and is considered a “good addition to the lifeguard family,” by Lifeguard Sgt. Brian Clark. “James is a really good lifeguard; very attentive and very proactive,” Clark said. “If he sees something off, he goes out of the way to educate the public. He wants to do everything he can to provide the best experience for the most number of people. (The rescue he is being lauded for) was a critical rescue and I don’t think (the victim) would be alive without James.”

Describing the situation to La Jolla Light, Earnest said: “It was a little bit overwhelming, but it was a team effort and we got the job done. Everyone responded like they should have ... we crushed it.” The two other lifeguards involved in the rescue were Aaron Estes and Shane McIntyre.

Rescue recap

On June 9, Earnest reported for duty at 9 a.m. and was scheduled to work solo until the early afternoon at Marine Street beach. Around noon, he noticed a strong rip current at Little Point about a quarter mile away and a swimmer heading for it.

As he explains it: “I saw someone swim out right into the rip current and dive under some waves toward where the surfers were. That area is not really a swimming beach, and I was fairly far away, so I couldn’t tell what he was doing and knew it would take a while to get there (to warn him). I just had a gut feeling that something was off.

“I called the main tower (at Children’s Pool) and told them I was going to run over and to be on standby, and they sent a unit to back me up. By the time I got there, the swimmer was face down and unconscious, but the surfers were helping him. I radioed to get more resources and swam out. We all helped bring him in. He was unconscious and I did a pulse and breath check and he didn’t have either.”

Serendipitously, Estes, the second guard who was set to join Earnest on duty that day, showed up early and ran down to assist. “Aaron was there within minutes of all this happening,” Earnest said. McIntyre was also on foot nearby and joined the rescue effort. Together they performed rescue breaths and chest compressions.

The backup that Earnest had asked for by radio arrived a few seconds later with an AED trauma pack. But before lifeguards could shock the victim with the AED pack, he regained a pulse and was transported to a local hospital. From there, the swimmer made a full recovery.

“A couple of days later, he and some family members took us all out for a beer. He was grateful and glad to be alive,” Earnest said.

Swimmer precautions

As to how this rescue compares to others in his six years of patrolling La Jolla beaches, Earnest said: “This was definitely an intense one. During a lot of our rescues, we’re able to get there quickly — sometimes before the person knows they’re in trouble. I’ve been involved with other CPR (rescues), but you don’t ever really get used to them. You try to not to think about bringing a dead person back to life, you revert back to your training and freak out after.”

Ernest shared three safety tips for swimmers: 1) Swim close to an existing lifeguard station so that in the event of an incident, lifeguards do not have to travel far to reach you; 2) Ask lifeguards about swimming conditions, as the safety of an area can vary from day to day; 3) Listen to lifeguards’ cautions.

Next season, Earnest plans to return to La Jolla lifeguarding. “I love this job,” he said, “and it’s hard to leave it. You get paid to be at the beach, paid to help people and you can make a huge difference in people’s lives.”

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