Local lifeguards take it global

When the sun is out and the weather is warm, Orange County residents flock to the beaches to surf, body board and swim in the chill Pacific without a second thought that if something happened, a lifeguard would be there to assist them.

But, in some countries, lifeguards aren't a given. Or if they are, there isn't always uniform life-saving procedures in place or the equipment and infrastructure needed to save lives.


"I think we take it for granted that we have lifeguards here all the time," said Raquel Lizarraga, 25, who volunteers with the Huntington Beach-based International Surf Lifesaving Assn.

It was the disparity in lifeguard services that brought together four Huntington Beach Lifeguards to volunteer their time and expertise to found the International Surf Lifesaving Assn., or ISLA, which works to prevent deaths from drowning by sharing and exchanging life-saving procedures with established lifeguard agencies to areas without any lifeguard around the world.


Since 2008, lifeguards and other emergency personnel have volunteered their time to give assistance in Chile, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Macedonia, Mexico, New Zealand and Nicaragua. The organization is getting requests for help in the Macedonia, Philippines, South Africa and Mozambique, said lifeguard Henry Reyes, 32.

"I think the coolest part of saving lives through ISLA is...we're actually able to expand our rescues exponentially," Reyes said.

ISLA is funding through donations. And, according to Reyes, most of the volunteers travel to the various countries on their own dime. The organization recently won $10,000 from the Chase Community Grant Contest.

A group of ISLA volunteers are spending their New Year's meeting with officials in Peru and assisting Chile's private lifesaving agency to patrol the busy beaches and exchange information.


"We help show them basic things that we seem to take for granted here," said Huntington Beach lifeguard Tyler Erwin, 25.

The organization was founded by Reyes and his then fellow Huntington Beach Junior Lifeguard instructors Peter Eich, Scott Hunthausen and Olin Patterson. It started after Hunthausen, now living in Texas, returned from studying abroad in Nicaragua where his host brother drowned.

"[That] really kick started it off and moved all of us into action," Reyes said.

Since they started working for ISLA, the volunteers have discovered that lifeguard conditions vary greatly.

Chile and Brazil have developed lifeguard infrastructure, but Nicaragua doesn't really have anything, Reyes said. Some places rely on volunteer lifeguards who only work on the weekends while other places have private contractors, he said.

"It's a completely different animal down there," Erwin said.

Depending on the situation, ISLA is conducting lifeguard certification courses, bringing down equipment and teaching how to identify swimmers in need of rescue, about the different rip tides and currents and how to use equipment, like buoys.

"It can be frustrating when you don't have the support you think you need, but it can be rewarding when you are helping them," Erwin said.


In Chile, ISLA will be working with Argentina lifeguards to partner with Chile's private lifesaving agency Servicios Especiales Acuaticos Ltda, or SEAL, which has more than 200 lifeguards, Reyes said.

The group will help patrol the coast of Pichilemu, exchange lifesaving techniques as well as meet with lifeguard officials in Chile, Peru, Argentina, and Uruguay to discuss drowning prevention strategies and exchange programs.

"I just find it really interesting how the different places adapt with the resources they have there," Erwin said.

Twitter: @britneyjbarnes

Want To Help?

The International Surf Lifesaving Assn., or ISLA, is competing in the National Drowning Prevention Alliance's 2013 Lifesaver of the Year contest. ISLA hopes to win a chance to attend the National Drowning Prevention Alliance Symposium in Florida to get the word out on what it does. To vote for ISLA, go to National Drowning Prevention Alliance's Facebook page and vote for Henry Reyes until Dec. 31.