You’ve seen them before, wearing their red swimsuits, holding the floatation bar, watching a long stretch of beach. You might even have seen them in action, blowing their whistle and racing down the sand to make a rescue. They are the oceanfront lifeguards, and they are the ones who keep beachgoers safe.
But what is it like to be an oceanfront lifeguard? What does a typical day for them look like? We sat down with some lifeguards who patrol the beaches in Los Angeles to find out!
While it may look like the lifeguards have only to watch the beachfront, and that is indeed part of their duties, the job involves far more than just that. One lifeguard described his duties as “monitoring current ocean/beach hazards, educating the public on beach/ocean safety, providing medical aid, making ocean rescues, and maintaining awareness of your neighboring lifeguards’ status at all times.”
In addition, they have to keep an eye on the beachfront itself. They are often the only workers on the beach, so they must keep track of bike and footpaths, fire pits, rocks, beach vehicles, and anything that is in violation of local beach ordinances. Much more than just the water!
Watch for Rip Currents!
Monitoring the current ocean and beach hazards involves a lot more than you think. That same lifeguard said that they need to keep an eye on wind and wave size so they can determine how strong the current is. Depending on how a wave breaks, lifeguards can determine the layout of the ocean floor underneath, and figure out where deep holes form. The ocean floor can change after turbulent weather, so it is important to know where the troubles are.
By monitoring these wave formations on a hourly basis, lifeguards can determine how and where rip currents will form. A rip current is a strong, narrow, and focused current of water that moves directly away from the shore. Rip currents can be incredibly dangerous to swimmers, who are likely to panic when a sudden strong force pulls them away. But by monitoring wave formulations, lifeguards can determine trouble spots and prepare for them. For example, if the lifeguard sees a wave break early on the surface, that could indicate a hole in the ocean floor. Rip currents are more likely to form in such holes, because they need the deeper water. Keeping an eye on this helps lifeguards identify problem spots and take appropriate action.
However, it is possible that the waves could form or break entirely because of the wind, so while this is a good indicator of where rip currents can form and cause trouble, it is not an exact science. Thus, all lifeguards must remain diligent at all times and adapt to the various situations as they come.
By monitoring all this information, lifeguards can inform beachgoers of any potential risks and keep the beach safe for all swimmers.
Unfortunately, making rescues is a fairly common part of a beachfront lifeguard’s job, especially considering how common rip currents are. In fact, the lifeguards we spoke to said that rip currents are the most common reason for rescues they encounter. Should someone get swept up in a current before the lifeguards can coach them away from it, they run to the water as fast as possible and swim, safely, to the swimmer in danger.
Together, with fellow lifeguards and floatation devices, the swimmer is pulled back to safety on shore. Once there, the lifeguards make sure no serious injury has been sustained, and then debrief the swimmer on the causes of their trouble and ways to ensure it does not happen again.
Lifeguards say that the biggest challenge they face on the job is being adaptable to the rapidly changing situations they can face. “The ocean is very dynamic and constantly changing,” one lifeguard said, “therefore you have to consistently adapt to the current hazards as they change throughout the day.”
Lifeguards spend the day monitoring the ocean conditions, weather, wind, beach tide, and neighboring lifeguards. Keeping all of that straight can be very challenging, and it’s important that all lifeguards do so. As these different situations change, lifeguards need to be ready to change with them. If a big crowd comes on the beach, or a storm breaks out, lifeguards are the ones who enforce the rules and keep everyone safe.
But more than that, they have to do all of this in a way that keeps the beachgoers safe.
To be an oceanfront lifeguard, you need to be in excellent shape at all times to perform your duties. Because of this, all oceanfront lifeguards have to pass regular tests to ensure they can still perform the job. Depending on whether you are full or part-time, you will have to pass a swim test which involves swimming a specified distance in a certain amount of time.
If you are doing more than just beachfront lifeguarding, for example, using rescue watercraft, there is a separate set of tests that you must undergo to be certified. Many of these additional certifications do expire, so it is important for lifeguards to keep their skills up and get recertified as needed.
Some skills also require additional training above and beyond that of the certification. For the rescue watercraft example above, lifeguards working in Los Angeles will need to get additional certification before they are ready to begin work.
When asked about the most common misconception of their work, the lifeguards we spoke with said most people think their job starts and ends in the summer. “What the public may not realize,” one lifeguard said, “although we do have part-time positions, there are many full-time positions within the Los Angeles County Fire Department Lifeguard ranks as the beaches of LA County will see beach activity all year round.”
Lifeguarding in Los Angeles is a full-time, year round job, and this does not just apply to LA. There are plenty of specialized lifeguard positions that need workers all year, such as:
- Swift Water Rescue Ops
- Rescue Watercraft Ops
- Rescue Diver Ops
- Technical Search and Rescue Ops
- Youth Programs
- Rescue Boat Ops
Lifeguarding can make a great full-time career path, if you’re interested in that. It can also be a great part-time or summer job as well.
This Specific Summer
Lastly, we asked the lifeguards if there was anything about this particular summer that stood out to them. The lifeguards said that there has been a larger amount of surf this year compared to previous years. Also, the water itself has been warmer than usual. Warmer water can create challenging situations for the lifeguards, so they have had to be more adaptable than ever!
Being an oceanfront lifeguard can be a very challenging job, but it can also be very rewarding as well. There is no better feeling than saving someone’s life, and knowing that you made a significant impact. That’s what turns many lifeguards to this career, and they hope they can be a inspiration for lifeguards to come.