Commentary: Teaching public about beach safety can prevent lifeguard deaths

Our hearts are broken.

On July 6, Ben Carlson became the first Newport Beach lifeguard to die in the line of duty. The job of this 15-year veteran of the city's marine operations was to protect swimmers and surfers, and he died doing just that, diving into turbulent waters to save a swimmer in distress.

It was part of his training and part of his calling, but it doesn't make his passing any easier to bear.

On Wednesday evening, more than 200 lifeguards, police officers and other first responders from around Orange County gathered for the 35th annual Project Wipeout Educational Conference at Hoag Hospital. The only seminar of its kind in the country, it is held to share information with these brave men and women about topics as varied as surf conditions and skin cancer.

The tragic loss of one of our own loomed over this year's conference: Hoag offered chaplaincy services, grief counseling was available through the Hoag Community Benefit Program and many friends and colleagues spoke about the various ways city officials, surfers and lifeguards have planned to memorialize Ben.

As program director for Project Wipeout, I think one important way we can honor Ben's legacy is by continuing the work of educating the public about beach safety.

Project Wipeout was started after the summer of 1979, when five young men were admitted to Hoag Hospital's intensive care unit with neck and spinal cord injuries related to surfing and swimming accidents at the beach. Dr. Jack Skinner and other concerned Hoag physicians, nurses, paramedics and lifeguards decided something had to be done and developed educational material to help prevent injuries and save lives.

Today, Project Wipeout has reached millions — young, old, experienced swimmers and novices — offering information and resources to keep people safe at the beach.

We work in tandem with lifeguards, who often use the project's printed material in their talks with the public about beach safety. I only met Ben a few times, but I know he was as dedicated as anyone in the lifeguarding community to preventing injuries and saving lives.

When lifeguards are doing their jobs, the public doesn't notice. Yes, they dive off boats like Ben did to carry out daring rescues, and they perform CPR to save those who would otherwise perish. They are superheroes. But for every rescue, the lifeguards perform three preventative actions — pulling a swimmer out of trouble before that swimmer even knows he needs help, for instance.

Similarly, Project Wipeout's aim is to keep people from getting into trouble in the first place. We teach people how to break free from a rip current, among other safety tips. Rip currents are among the biggest causes of drowning, and the untrained eye typically doesn't see them. If you're caught in a rip current, swim parallel to shore. It's best to swim north in the summer and south in the winter, using the power of the ocean to propel you back to shore.

We teach people not to dive head first into the water because the ocean floor is uneven. It's best to test the depth of water with your feet, not your head.

Most importantly, we let people know that when they're at the beach, they should check in with the lifeguards. Lifeguards can tell you what the ocean conditions are like and whether it's a good idea to swim.

That's what lifeguards do — advise and caution, as well as save. They live to serve; their motto is "Lifeguards for life." That's why losing one makes us all feel hollow inside.

Our hearts are broken, but the mission of preventing beach injuries and saving lives, the mission Ben gave his life to fulfill, is as strong as ever.

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LINDA REUTER is the program director of Project Wipeout at Hoag Hospital.

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