Next time you're out strolling the beach, stop and take a good look around. For up beyond the sand and surf, you - and everybody else out there - are being watched. Not by some sneaky Big Brother, but by the tan hardbody in the red trunks. From a small post tower, a lifeguard peers through binoculars, anticipating the inevitable. And no matter what dangerous predicament we get into, this guardian angel of the sand is there to fish us out.
Life Guards in Los Angeles form a division of the County Fire Department, made up of highly trained men and women who protect the coastline. Or perhaps, more accurately, protect beachcombers from themselves. More than 60 million people visited L.A. County's 31 miles of beaches last year, and thanks to the brave efforts of on-duty lifeguards, about 12,000 rescues were made. Although the work is far from the silly glamor of Baywatch, there's still no other job they would rather do.
Captain Steve Mosley has been a lifeguard for 20 years, yet like many others, he didn't choose it as a career initially. "I became a lifeguard to help pay for college," Mosley said. "I figured I'd do it for two or three years, then I was going to go get the big financial job." Which is exactly what he did. After graduating, Mosley worked in property management, but still couldn't escape the lure of the beach.
"I'll never forget the moment. I was stuck on the freeway, on my way to deal with these burned-down crack houses. It was hot, I was in a coat and tie...I looked over and saw these kids with boogie boards and ice chests, and just then the surf report came on the radio. It said 'it's as good as it's going to get; if you're not here, you're an idiot.' And I thought, he's right, I am an idiot. So, I dealt with all my problems, then went back to the office and quit."
Mosley's been a lifeguard ever since. He started as a part-time seasonal, as most lifeguards do. Over the years he moved up the ranks to his current full-time position.
But it's not as easy as it sounds. Every September, LA County holds a 1,000-meter ocean swim, basically the lifeguard's equivalent of an entrance exam. Of the 200 to 300 people who compete, only the fastest 80 swimmers are chosen. The physical aspects to the job are so demanding that only someone highly skilled in the water can make the cut. From there, applicants take a series of tests, including written and physical fitness. Fifty are chosen to enter the academy, where they undergo an intense 10-day, 100-hour training course before being assigned to their post.
Training covers how to spot and make a rescue; how to enforce city ordinances, such as patrolling alcohol use; missing children; watercraft distress; and most importantly, first aid. Lifeguards must have extensive knowledge of first aid, including CPR. Many are Emergency Medical Technicians and the county encourages this by offering a higher rate of pay to those who have certification.
Seasonal lifeguards make anywhere from $16 to $20 an hour. Full-time lifeguards, known as permanents, make up to $27 an hour. A permanent oversees a couple of miles of beach, and other lifeguards assigned there. A captain oversees a group of permanents. "It's a lot like being a fireman or policeman, in that you have great job benefits, great retirement, and good worker's compensation," Mosley said. "It's also a job that encourages you to stay in shape." Every June all lifeguards go through a recertification process to make sure their skills are up to par.
Danielle Yardley is one of 580 part-timers in LA County who patrols LA beaches during the summer. For Yardley, a 24-year-old high school teacher during the rest of the year, this is certainly a dream job. Despite her swim team and water polo background in college, it took her three years to beat out hundreds of others in the ocean swim to qualify for the rigorous training academy.
Yardley's eight-hour shift begins with setting up her tower and checking the conditions for the day. Her main task is to watch and make sure every person in her area is safe. Some days are busier than others. "On Memorial Day, I had 11 rescues," she said. "All day long I was trying to move people out of dangerous situations." But for Yardley, that is its own reward. "It's exhausting to have days like that, but a lot of people went home having had a great day at the beach, not knowing the danger they could have been in," she says.
Although the job is physically and mentally demanding, one look at the orange sun sliding into the Pacific makes it all worthwhile. "It doesn't feel like a real job," Mosley said. "I've been doing this since 1981, and I still keep wondering when I'm going to have to wake up, put on a tie and go to work!"
So if you can swim fast and dream of a job that's a day at the beach. . . dream on!