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Lifeguards’ Elite Corps : They Love the Work, Never Tire of ‘Office’

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Every Easter vacation, about 300 young men and women gather on a beach in Santa Monica to compete in a modern Darwinian ritual. But in this race, even the fittest often don’t survive.

At the appointed time, they line up, run into the water and fight, crawl, push and do their best to swim around a series of strategically placed buoys in a 1-mile race. For some, it will be the most important contest of their lives.

The race decides who will be the next group of new lifeguards in Los Angeles County. With a little luck, a large dose of desire and Olympic-caliber swimming skills, about 60 will make it each year. If they exhibit endurance along with speed, most will stay for the next 30 years.

“It looks like everybody is trying to drown each other,” said Jonathan Edge, a seasonal county lifeguard. “The people want it so bad that it gets crazy out there. But how can you blame them? This isn’t so much a job as a way of life.”

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Edge works at Malibu’s Surfrider Beach, but it’s difficult to say exactly when he’s working. He usually shows up there on his days off, “just to hang out” with the other lifeguards, watch his colleagues surf during their daily half-hour workout and to swim. Mostly to swim. With his red hair and pale complexion, he seems an unlikely candidate to fill a sun-drenched job. But, he says, he can’t resist.

“I thought I was going to do it for one summer when I was in school, but I liked it so I came back,” he said. “And then I came back again. And this is my third summer. What can I say? It’s a great job.”

For people like Capt. Gary Crum, becoming a lifeguard was a matter of tradition. His father, Dwight, began as a lifeguard before World War II and stayed in the department for the next 34 years, rising to assistant director of the Department of Beaches and Harbors before retiring in 1974. A picture of his father and the 3-year-old future lifeguard captain walking along Redondo Beach hangs on the wall behind Crum’s desk.

Office With a View

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The desk is the centerpiece in a small office, about three stories above the Pacific Ocean, that is arguably among the nicest work places in Los Angeles. From Crum’s vantage point at the Venice lifeguard headquarters, he has a 180-degree view of the northern and southern sections of the beach, as well as a sizable sun deck outside. The station, near the end of Venice Boulevard, is about 50 yards from the water’s edge. It is one of the reasons people such as Crum, who joined the force in 1966 straight out of high school, stay on as lifeguards when their friends are asking them why they don’t get “real” jobs.

The lifeguards believe their jobs, which last year involved watching over 55 million visitors to Los Angeles’ beaches, are very real. Today, full-time permanent lifeguards can make between $36,000 and $50,000 per year, depending on their experience and whether they are eligible for bonuses for passing extra paramedic courses or joining the department’s diving and recovery team.

“The reason why L.A.'s lifeguards are the best in the world is that it’s the only place where it’s a year-round profession,” Crum said. “People look on this as a career because the pay is good, the benefits are good and, obviously, lifeguards enjoy their jobs.”

Last month, the Los Angeles lifeguards, who patrol 40 miles of public beaches from the Ventura County border almost to Long Beach and including Catalina Island, won the 1988 National Lifeguard Championship held in Cape May, N.J. To say that they won is to say that sprinter Carl Lewis runs fast. They scored more points than the second-, third- and fourth-place teams combined.

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“This job is not for everybody,” Crum said. “Some people don’t like the pressure involved in having to save lives. It used to be that people who hung out and surfed at the beach and were good swimmers might become lifeguards. But today the only people who get picked are at the top of the pack. The best are Olympic-caliber swimmers and the rest are probably just a notch below that. It’s incredibly competitive. But we have to have a way to separate the men from the boys.”

In the future, one way may be to determine who can match a great freestyle stroke with computer programming skills. Today, the lifeguard operation, from the department’s budget to its payroll and scheduling, is done on computers. The department only started using computers about four years ago, but now the performance of the 600 seasonal and the 100 full-time, permanent lifeguards is tallied on video display terminals.

Each of the department’s 7,063 rescues during 1987--a statistic that used to be logged in longhand--is entered in the computer, along with the beach where the rescue was performed and the type of emergency.

Crum said lifeguards may face an even more high-tech future. There is talk of placing computers in many of the county’s 155 lifeguard stations. So far, the idea has met resistance. Many of the longtime lifeguards maintain that the computers add nothing to their ability to save lives.

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“There’s an old guard that says, ‘Hey, we operated all these years without them, what do we need them for?’ ” Crum said. “But these computers have made our lives much easier. And anything that can reduce the amount of time we have to spend on anything except protecting the beaches is worth it.”

Lifeguard Lt. Mick Gallagher was far away from his computer early last week, driving up and down Venice Beach trying to determine which of his portable stations was endangered by the huge 8- to 10-foot swells generated by a storm off the coast of Chile one week before.

That’s when he spotted them.

To the average beach-goer, the three boys encircled by the swirling water on a recent afternoon in Venice were just a group of teen-agers cooling off on the last week of summer vacation.

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To Gallagher, they were a potential rescue.

Less than five minutes later, they became one.

Gallagher had seen the riptide long before he saw the teen-agers. He knew that anybody but an expert swimmer would be ensnared and carried out into the deep water once he reached the riptide, but for five hours today, no one had.

“204, this is 205, I’ve got a rescue off Avenue 19,” the voice began over Gallagher’s truck radio. “Maybe you can begin rolling a backup over here in a bit.”

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Gallagher, the backup, swung the truck around and began speeding over the bumpy, sloping sand dunes, zipping around the Venice Pier, past the lifeguard headquarters and over to where a lifeguard stood in knee-deep water waving an orange “rescue can.” Gallagher sat in the truck, staring, until the lifeguard swam to the boys and guided them back to the shore.

It was the first rescue of the day. Business was slow.

“You could tell it was only a matter of time,” Gallagher said, squinting into the afternoon sun. “All the ingredients were there: a big surf, poor swimmers and a riptide. They’re rescues long before we even get to them.”

Gallagher waved to the other lifeguard and then slowly turned the truck around and began heading down the beach. A young man in light-blue cutoffs approached his truck.

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“Is it not good here to swim?” the man asked in broken English. “Is there something wrong? Can we go in for a picture?”

Gallagher sighed and shook his head. “If you can’t swim, don’t go in the water, OK?” The man nodded, and Gallagher turned to his passenger. “When they have to ask you whether they can swim, you know that they shouldn’t be here.”

He started the truck again, slowing down when he looked at the surf. He stopped and reached down to his two-way radio, gazing out the window as he began to speak.

“Check out this set (of waves),” he told his fellow lifeguards, waiting for the huge waves to crash before starting the truck again.

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Gallagher, Crum and other department officials work hard to downplay the glamorous side of being a lifeguard. Gallagher talks often about the pressures of being responsible for other lives as well as for “his men” in the field. (There are women lifeguards as well.) And he clearly identifies with the paramilitary side of the organization, in part because he has worked most of his career in Santa Monica and Venice, where there is more crime on the beach than elsewhere in Los Angeles County and he is required to work more closely with police.

This partially explains the military language in the 1-inch-thick lifeguard training manual, which discusses everything from proper uniforms to beach demeanor. It leaves unexplained, however, a description of one section of Point Dume Beach in Malibu which, the manual says, “attracts the most unusual collection of people any lifeguard will ever encounter in his entire career. They range from John Q. Public to faggots, perverts, drug users, runaways and mentally unbalanced people.” The manual also describes Surfrider Beach, one of the best-known in Southern California, as having “its own parade of self-proclaimed characters and hard-core jailbait.”

Crum, who said the department attempted to pull the “highly offensive” sections from all of the training manuals when they were discovered last year, stopped short of criticizing the early lifeguard standards, some of which are echoed in the current department bible. Instead, he praised the people who “took lifeguarding out of the Hollywood image of the guy sitting in his hut with a straw hat, strumming his ukulele.”

“This is a paramilitary organization, with a rigid chain of command that has some law enforcement responsibilities,” Crum said. “We wear badges and we have to approach the job with the same discipline and professionalism as policemen and firemen. We don’t want to be the ugly stepchild. We want to be co-equals.”

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But there is a big difference. As longtime lifeguards John Renaud and Eldin Onsgard will tell you, there is probably only one thing better than being a lifeguard on a beach when the southern swells are up, the waves are clean and the sun is shining. That’s being off-duty at the beach that day.

Most of the lifeguards tend to stay away from psuedo-police work, only calling the cops when their directives go unheeded. Usually, their warnings about dogs on the beach, inner tubes in the water, and alcohol and drugs near the surf are obeyed. But occasionally, and often reluctantly, city police or county sheriff’s deputies are called in when a fight breaks out or things get too heated for the few lifeguards on the beach.

“Our primary responsibility is always watching the water, but on slow days, it seems that we’re being paid to look at the latest in fashion swim wear,” Onsgard said. “But then all of a sudden it will change and you have to do a water rescue.”

For the last 20 years, Onsgard has worked as a seasonal lifeguard for Los Angeles County, supplementing his income as a water polo coach at Pierce Junior College in Woodland Hills and at Cal State Los Angeles. Like the majority of lifeguards, Onsgard grew up in aquatic circles, swimming competitively and later playing water polo. Several of his students are now county lifeguards.

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Renaud, Onsgard’s supervisor, has been patrolling county beaches for the last 16 years. Today, he is a fixture at Malibu’s Surfrider Beach, known for his easy manner almost as much as for the speed of his rescues. Because of the popularity of the beach, he probably treats more surfing accidents than any other lifeguard, and makes it part of his job to study the nuances of wave breaks as much as the young swimmers near Malibu Pier.

But it was a long, cool summer for Renaud. The waves were unusually poor, the skies often gray and, with the exception of the Labor Day weekend throngs, the size of the crowds was way down. So was his business.

“I don’t remember a slower summer,” Renaud said. “It’s just been one long lull. We’ve only had 49 rescues out here all year. It’s never been this quiet.”

This day was different though. A storm from New Zealand had brought a big swell to the area, and the overcast sky that brought rain the previous day had cleared up. Renaud took some pictures of the two dozen surfers in the water and then jumped in his truck to check on the lifeguard in the nearby tower.

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When he left, Onsgard jumped into Renaud’s chair and began describing the previous day.

“I had just gotten off work and the waves were huge around 6 p.m.,” Onsgard said. “So I jumped in, and about five minutes later this rainbow came out that was just incredible. It looked like paradise out here. It was beautiful.”

As Onsgard talked, a tan woman in her early 20s, wearing a bikini about the size of a large Band-Aid, walked by the front of the lifeguard station. Onsgard smiled. She smiled back.

“Not that this isn’t beautiful too,” he said as she walked by. “Because that is beautiful.”

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The race to be a lifeguard has changed over the years. At one time, the department tested all candidates in the ocean first, but they ran into a problem.

“We used to have to rescue so many would-be lifeguards in the ocean that it became ridiculous,” Crum said. “For one day, we had lifeguards rescuing people who wanted to be lifeguards.”

Now, the department makes candidates pass a timed 1,000-meter swim in a pool before tackling the ocean contest. Those at the top of the pack then must undergo an intensive six-day training course. Twice a year, permanent lifeguards, including high-level department members such as Crum, must swim 500 meters in under 10 minutes.

Crum and others have described being a lifeguard as being part of a brotherhood. It almost has to be: There is little room for advancement in the department, which has one chief, one assistant chief and 29 lieutenants.

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“People here are very competitive by nature, but we have a lot more qualified people than opportunities,” Crum said. “But with most of these guys, since they’re enjoying the beach almost every day, you can’t tell their regular work day from (their) day off.

“The best way to describe it is to say that it’s a job filled with hours of boredom, interspersed with moments of sheer terror. And there are great benefits to the job if you love the outdoors. But for almost all of our people, lifeguarding isn’t what they do--it’s who they are.”


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