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‘My place of happiness’: La Jolla lifeguard Elizabeth Palmer looks back on 25 summers of service

La Jollan Elizabeth "Liz" Palmer was the first female lifeguard to work at Black's Beach (pictured behind her).
(Courtesy of Elizabeth Palmer)

Elizabeth Palmer spends her summers working her “ideal job” on the beach and recently was recognized by the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department for her 25 years of service.

Palmer, known to her lifeguard colleagues as Liz, is a seasonal guard during her summers off from teaching high school economics (she prefers to keep the school and district private). She said teaching and lifeguarding are “a perfect pairing.” Through the years, she has taken shifts during spring breaks and other times school is closed.

Palmer has worked various beaches and bays throughout San Diego, though the past decade of her service has focused on “what we call the northern district, which is La Jolla,” she said.

Palmer said she was the first female lifeguard to work at Black’s Beach and Windansea.

“Those two beaches are unique to work,” she said. “The terrain is really rough and you really need to have the solid skill sets of an excellent lifeguard to work [there], whether you’re a male or a female … along with the ability to meld in well with the clientele that go to those beaches.”

“Black’s Beach has its own challenges,” Palmer added. “We have very large rip currents up there and cliffs and interesting encounters. ... It’s not for everybody to work.”

Elizabeth Palmer, who has 25 years of summer service as a lifeguard, says it's her "ideal job."
(Courtesy of Elizabeth Palmer)

She’s also a lifeguard ambassador, “a special assignment position for seasonal lifeguards” working with ocean sports companies that are operating under contract with the city.

“We have five kayak concessionaires posted up at the La Jolla Shores boat launch at the end of Avenida de la Playa,” Palmer said. The vendors pay a premium for a spot on the beach and are vetted by the lifeguard department for safety qualification and taught by lifeguards to operate safely on the water.

“That’s what we like about our sanctioned people, because we know that if clients contract to go out in these kayaks and take those tours, they’ll be operating safely and in partnership with the lifeguard service,” Palmer said.

The process also facilitates a faster response in an emergency, she said. “The safety protocols are such that it moves like clockwork when we have an emergency or an injury. We can get the victim or the patient packaged up and sent off to the hospital if needed. It’s a well-oiled machine at this point.”

Palmer said several surf companies at La Jolla Shores also are participating in the lifeguard ambassador program. “I also manage the operations in conjunction with them, just to make sure that they operate safely and are doing a good job,” she said.

Palmer said the lifeguard ambassadors also work with the La Jolla Shores Association “to make sure that their input is noted … into the safety parameters that we put in place for these companies.”

“So we’re in partnership not only with the companies but the city, the lifeguards and the community as well. It’s important that we’re all working together,” she said.

La Jolla lifeguard Elizabeth Palmer trained at UC San Diego's RIMAC arena to vaccinate others against COVID-19.
(Courtesy of Elizabeth Palmer)

Palmer also put in time with the department over the winter to help vaccinate people against COVID-19.

“In January, they needed more vaccinators,” said Palmer, an EMT (emergency medical technician) lifeguard.

Palmer said she suggested that local EMTs be trained to administer vaccines to help alleviate the pandemic. “They actually trained us up at [UC San Diego],” she said, “and I gave vaccinations from January to May.”

“I felt it was important that those who needed or wanted a vaccine were able to receive [it],” she said. “There were so many people desperate to get them at the time. It was a good service to provide.”

Palmer was raised near Pasadena but spent her summers in La Jolla with her grandparents. She calls La Jolla Shores and La Jolla Cove “my home beach. It pretty much felt like home to me.”

She moved to La Jolla permanently in the 1990s, when AT&T transferred her to San Diego as a senior engineer and project manager.

“This was my No. 1 choice community to live in,” Palmer said. “It’s my place of happiness.

“I just think the beauty of the area is so unique and like no other place I’ve ever been in the world or even in California. It’s just beautiful: the water, the sea life, the landscape.”

Palmer dove into lifeguarding shortly after she “decided to make a career transition back into teaching school. I was also competing in distance swimming, ocean swims.”

“I was training at UCSD Master Swimming, also swimming The Cove in the winters,” she said. “The lifeguards saw me there and said I would make a fantastic candidate for the job. I was really flattered, and I tried out almost on a dare … and I made it.”

She intended to be a lifeguard for only two summers, but “here I am 25 years later, still loving it.”

Lifeguarding is “a dream job for me,” Palmer said. “It’s the happiness factor of going to work every day and knowing that you’re helping people by saving lives and taking care of medical aids.”

Palmer encourages beach-goers to contact lifeguards when they arrive to “find out what the conditions are, where the rip currents are, where the safest place to be all day is.”

She said she wants visitors “to have a great time; they don’t come to the beach to get rescued. … It’s our duty and job to make sure that people are going home safely and enjoying their day.” ◆