He could be working in any major Southern California hospital, with his master’s in clinical psychology from Pepperdine University and bachelor’s from UCLA.
Instead, Kevin Selna, 33, chose a different public health setting: the beach.
Selna, who patrols the coastline of Crystal Cove State Park, is one of about 70 lifeguards-peace officers for the state park system who watch the shores and enforce laws up and down the coast. While he carries a gun and a badge, most full-time lifeguards do not.
So when news reports revealed guards’ generous pensions — one of the reasons Selna took the job — and the nearly $150,000 in salaries paid to Newport Beach supervisors, people around the world got furious. They imagined Pamela Anderson on “Baywatch,” and flooded officials’ phones and inboxes to demand changes.
Residents and politicians are now reevaluating career lifeguards’ worth, and many towns are considering budget cuts or pension reforms. The guards — suddenly emblematic of excessive public-employee compensation — have tried to combat nagging perceptions. They say that their thorough training, sophisticated equipment and years of experience prevent thousands of people from drowning each year.
But city officials in Newport Beach and other coastal communities in California say they need to put a numerical value on those who save lives, especially in these austere times.
“The issue at the end of the day is, ‘What is the expense to the taxpayer?’” says Newport Beach City Councilwoman Leslie Daigle, who supported slashing half of the city’s full-time guard positions. “I think it’s too high. It’s not fiscally sustainable.”
Newport’s not alone, either in its generous compensation or in its proposed cuts.
San Diego, Huntington Beach and other coastal municipalities have considered reducing staffing or reforming guards’ pensions.
And while Newport’s full-time guards, supervisors and chiefs received all of the notoriety, the state’s top three highest-paid guards are actually from the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Service, the largest guard agency in the state.
Three of its chiefs made more than $190,000 in wages during 2009, according to the state Controller’s salary database, and that didn’t include any county-paid retirement or health benefits.
Like firefighters and police officers, full-time lifeguards say they also deserve to be well-paid and receive pensions. These pensions are meant to reward all public-safety personnel who risk their lives on the job.
“You’re running out into the surf when people are dying,” says Chris Brewster, president of the U.S. Lifesaving Assn. “It is a highly stressful job.”
‘The waves get big here’
In today’s economy, some officials along the coast are asking similar questions about career lifeguards: What is their appropriate compensation? How many do we need to sufficiently cover the beach?
Many, while cutting back on pension benefits, still defend their pay.
“We think about what adds value to the community, and saving people from the water is important,” says Newport Councilman Keith Curry, who initially voted to raise lifeguard pensions but now supports reforms. “You don’t want to pay them more than minimum wage — until it’s your kid who’s drowning.”
One of the city’s most experienced guards is Brian O’Rourke, Newport’s rescue boat supervisor. He has been manning the 29-foot yellow “Sea Watch” boats since 1989.
Steering through a short-interval swell on a recent sunny weekday, he, along with his deckhand, scan the surfline for riptides and distressed swimmers.
O’Rourke explains the different bottom contours along Newport’s nine-mile coast.
With a surfer’s drawl, he describes a submarine canyon that refracts large west swells near Newport Pier and a steep shelf near the Balboa Pier that causes a shore break.
“The waves get big here, and we have exploding rips,” he says near 56th Street, motioning toward a rock jetty. “There’s a million different scenarios that happen.”
Lifeguard captains like O’Rourke made between $81,000 and $88,000 in the 2010 calendar year, according to a city report.
Generally, full-time guards’ salaries are about 5% to 10% less than their counterparts in the fire department, says Chris Brewster, president of the United States Lifesaving Assn.
L.A. County fire captains, for instance, in 2009 made a maximum base salary of $105,000 per year, while lifeguard captains made $92,000.
A similar ratio can be found at most local agencies, Brewster says.
Some question whether guards need to be so highly compensated to attract top talent. Moving up to a permanent position is the goal for many seasonal guards, and they hardly ever have the opportunity.
It has been four years since Newport hired a new permanent guard.
“The question is, shouldn’t the compensation be set to a point where you can still attract and retain qualified individuals, while still protecting the interest of the taxpayer?” says Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.
When the story about Newport guards’ compensation, the headlines were harsh: “Meet the Six-Figure Lifeguards Bankrupting a California Town,” one read.
“Time for a career change? California’s Baywatch lifeguards paid up to $210,000 per year,” read another.
“Champagne wishes and suntan lotion … it’s time we stopped providing lifestyles of the rich and famous on a government pension,” went a video by the small-government advocacy groupAmericans for Prosperity.
Tom Billings, a Newport Beach resident and former part-time lifeguard, complained to council members when he read about the city’s full-time guard salaries.
“It seems hugely excessive,” he says. “I know what the job entails … that’s kind of a ridiculous amount of pay for their job responsibility.”
“There are a lot of qualified people,” he continues. “They’d be lining up for those jobs at a lower pay.”
Lifeguards and local officials defend their pay by comparing it to other coastal cities. Newport produced a report that shows Huntington Beach, Seal Beach and Laguna Beach pay more for some equivalent positions.
“The better the compensation, the better people you’re going to attract,” says Newport Fire Chief Mike Morgan. “There is competition among different cities and counties … (Lifeguards) want to have a house and have a family.”
Reforms are swelling
But the tide appears to be turning — if not for salaries, at least for pensions. Leading into this fall’s union contract negotiations, Newport City Manager Dave Kiff and some council members have been pushing for a new pension formula for public-safety employees hired in the future.
Newport guards have a so-called “3% at 50" pension formula — the most generous level offered to public employees in the state. If one of them is paid $100,000 per year and works for the city for 30 years, then he or she would get 90% of pay, or $90,000 per year, for the rest of life.
A few other California lifeguard agencies have the 3% at 50 plan: Coronado, Huntington Beach, Long Beach, Oceanside, Seal Beach and Solana Beach, which recently lowered its plan for new-hires.
“They’ve learned a lesson that if you get too far ahead of what the public thinks is fair, you get brought back,” says Curry, the Newport councilman.
He was one of the council members who voted in 2007 to raise lifeguard pensions to be in line with firefighters and police officers. Now, he says, such plans are no longer sustainable.
Recruiting top talent
Because of their solid compensation packages, many public agencies can attract college-educated guards.
Selna recently transferred from Bolsa Chica and Huntington state beaches to Crystal Cove. All are in the California State Parks system.
Unlike most municipal guards in California, state park guards carry guns, badges and perform many of the same duties as police officers. They qualify for a 3% at 50 public safety pension, but their take-home pay is less than most local California agencies.
State lifeguards-peace officers are paid about $40,000 at the entry level, and can make up to $88,000 as supervisors.
Selna chose guarding for his career partially because of the pension, he says, and because he was hooked on the outdoors after 14 years of summer guarding.
“A lot of these lifeguards are talented people … They just love the ocean environment,” he says. “They could easily go walk away and do something else.”
Attracting college grads with generous pensions is worth it, says Steven Powell, an L.A. County rescue boat captain.
Full-time guards are often asked to lead complex rescues, manage schedules and draft department policies, says Powell, who is also the county Lifeguard Assn. president.
“We need people that are intelligent, that are self-motivated, that can problem-solve,” he adds.
L.A.'s pension plan is less generous than Newport’s. L.A. County permanent guards, firefighters and sheriff’s deputies have a 2% at 50 formula.
Also, the county guards contribute 10% to 11% of their pensions, while Newport’s pay only 3.5%. Kiff and some council members are pushing for guards to contribute 9% of their retirement cost.
Cuts on the horizon
San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders has endorsed a 401(k)-style plan instead of lifeguard and firefighter pensions, while leaving police with a guaranteed retirement benefit. “America’s Finest City” also recently stopped patrolling some its remote stretches, such as Black’s Beach between La Jolla and the city of Del Mar.
Huntington Beach city officials, meanwhile, eliminated patrols at Dog Beach and reduced the hours permanent guards patrol during the slow season. Now they stop patrolling at 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., instead of midnight, from about October to March.
For the next fiscal year, Huntington officials are also asking the guards union to consider a lower pension formula for new-hires, says Mike Beuerlein, a Huntington lifeguard supervisor and president of the California Surf Lifesaving Assn.
“I think that will be the trend up and down the coast,” he says.
Kyle Lindo, Huntington’s marine safety chief, says during his 25 years in the department he has seen lifeguards’ budgets cut during tight times.
“It’s almost as if it’s the low-hanging fruit,” he says.
Training, not tanning
Part of what makes them vulnerable, guards say, is that politicians don’t fully understand their responsibilities or qualifications.
Year-round guards in Newport must have emergency medical technician certification, as do firefighters — an example, managers say, of the training that sets them apart from seasonal ocean lifeguards or pool or lake guards.
Newport’s guards are part of the city’s Fire Department, and they receive much of the same training. They undergo Federal Emergency Management Agency courses so they can coordinate with other agencies during major emergencies.
“I don’t think people realize how trained we are,” says Newport Battalion Chief Rob Williams.
Some permanent guards can fight marine fires, and scuba dive on search-and-recovery operations.
Even with the guards’ experience and training, it’s hard for many to understand why these supervisors should be so well-compensated. Most people picture guards sitting on towers, surrounded by beautiful people, driving Jeeps on the sand, and occasionally running into the water for a rescue.
Williams bristles at the perception of hot babes and suntans. Most of their work goes unseen, he says.
“We’re always educating people about the hazards and conditions of the ocean — and what our profession is,” he says. “We try to educate and prevent things before they happen … response is the last thing we do.”
Part of law enforcement
Williams also oversees the city’s popular summer youth Junior Lifeguard program, as do full-time guard supervisors in other beach towns. He’s one of two battalion chiefs who manage the department’s full-time guards and nearly 200 seasonal employees.
In 2010, the Newport battalion chiefs made between $143,000 and $149,000, including overtime and special pay given for additional duties and designations.
Duties vary among agencies. In places like Huntington Beach, permanent guards help manage crowds at major surf competitions. In less-populated areas like Malibu’s Zuma Beach, they cruise long stretches full of empty guard towers.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” says Powell. “Sometimes you’re the only person responsible for the whole beach.”
In Newport, permanent guards operate the dispatch center. They man radios from a room at the base of the Newport Pier and look out of windows providing a 180-degree view of the shoreline.
On a recent slow weekday, a captain answered a caller’s questions about beach barbequing.
But during the summer, Williams says he might be coordinating two simultaneous rescues. He compares positioning boats, trucks and tower guards to a “choreographed dance.”
The evolution of the full-time guard
Southern California isn’t the only area with professional lifeguards.
Hawaii and Florida, where people also visit the beach year-round, have career guards — as do some cities in Texas, parts of the East Coast and other portions of the West Coast.
Guards have long been a part of law enforcement or fire agencies.
The first known full-time lifeguards were police officers in Atlantic City, N.J., in the 1880s, says Brewster, president of the USLA. City boosters there were concerned when tourists started drowning, so they assigned cops to watch the water and, soon after, hired dedicated lifeguards.
West Coast guarding followed a similar path. In the early 1900s, 18 people drowned in one weekend in Newport Beach.
San Diego saw a tragedy in 1918, when 13 swimmers drowned in one day because of riptides. That city’s first chief lifeguard was in the police department and wore a badge — on his swimsuit.
From there, ocean guarding has evolved in Southern California. In some places, it became part of parks and recreation departments. San Diego, Newport and Los Angeles County merged with their fire departments in the mid-1990s.
L.A. guards had already been receiving pay and pensions similar to firefighters since the Board of Supervisors voted for that level of compensation in the 1960s, according to the county lifeguard website.
Risking life and nose
The idea behind generous public-safety pensions is to reward employees for risking their lives. While guards are sometimes injured running into the water, rarely do they die on the job, says Brewster. The only death he could recall was in 1991 when a San Diego lifeguard died during a swift-water rescue training exercise.
Comparatively, in 2010, 87 firefighters lost their lives on the job, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
A more common killer of career guards is skin cancer during retirement, union representatives say, although no statistics are kept. Many agencies buy guards sunscreen or give them a stipend for it.
Newport’s $400 annual “sun protection allowance” for full-time guards became a punch line in many of the commentaries ridiculing their compensation, but no one would argue against the need for protection.
People will continue to be shocked at lifeguard salaries, as long as their perception of lifeguarding is based on shows like “Baywatch,” says Powell from the L.A. County Lifeguard Assn.
“There are a lot of stereotypes surrounding what lifeguards do, especially when you move beyond the beach areas,” he says. “People understand what the job of a police officer and firefighter is, but they don’t understand the job of a full-time lifeguard.”
Slow-motion images of scantily-clad Pamela Anderson certainly didn’t cause anyone to take their job more seriouslythey say.But hile guards insist people should recognize the more serious aspects of their profession, they do acknowledge their jobs are pretty nice.
“I love it. It’s been a privilege,” says O’Rourke as he walked down the Newport Pier just after finishing a rescue boat rotation. Palm trees sway in the background.
“I just feel so fortunate being down here, being able to work here,” he added. “I’m blessed.”