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Beach Medical Patrols Keep Vigil in Ocean of Commotion

ORANGE COUNTY SUMMER: One in an occasional series on summer life in Orange County.

August 25, 1986|MARCIDA DODSON | Times Staff Writer

Dodging sand castles, beach blankets and browning bodies, the red Jeep crawled along the ocean shore.

But the two men inside who scanned the crowd and water were less conscious of the languid scene than they were alert for signs of danger.

A sand bar hidden a few feet below the shallow surf could dislocate a shoulder or shatter the vertebrae of a swimmer diving through the waves. A broken bottle submerged in the sand could slice through a foot.

The child being playfully buried in the sand near the surf could be trapped underwater if a big wave broke a foot or two closer to shore.

Should any of these emergencies arise, the Huntington Beach lifeguards' Jeep, carrying an emergency medical technician and supplies, is there a minute or two later. Armed with bandages, ointments and other equipment, the technician and lifeguards trained in first aid can treat cuts, immobilize broken bones or administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

"People come here to have fun, but when you get out in the natural environment, there are hazards you can't control," said John Barth, a Huntington Beach lifeguard supervisor and emergency medical technician. "You can't control how big the waves are," how strong the riptide will pull, how hard the surf will throw a loose object--such as a surfboard--or where it will land, he added.

In addition to being able to swim through the tide and haul struggling swimmers to safety, all of Huntington Beach's tower lifeguards are trained to treat the minor aches and scrapes that occur at the beach.

But for anything more serious, a mobile lifeguard unit is called. Huntington Beach has two Jeeps, each staffed with one lifeguard and one supervisor who is a certified emergency medical technician (EMT), a step in training below paramedic. The mobile team can provide more extensive help, sometimes until paramedics arrive.

"If anything major happens, we can get two EMTs on the scene within three minutes," Barth said as he and a lifeguard patrolled the beach.

Most oceanside medical problems are minor, Barth said, such as cuts from glass. But others cross the line into the serious category: near-drowning, cardiac arrest, dislocated shoulder, broken bone or neck and spinal cord injuries.

"Playing rough on the sand or in the ocean can be rough on you," Barth said, standing by the pier and scanning the water for trouble.

On a recent hot weekend afternoon--normally prime conditions for beach injuries--the Jeep's lifeguard frequency radio was unusually quiet.

About 3:10, however, came reports of a beach-goer suffering a cut. But this case was potentially dangerous: The victim was a 67-year-old hemophiliac, a bleeder, who had dropped a radio on his ankle, breaking the skin. Although it was just a surface cut, it wouldn't stop bleeding.

Kai Wiesser, another Huntington Beach EMT, applied pressure to stop the bleeding, wrapped the ankle in gauze, advised the La Mirada man to keep his foot elevated and packed with ice. The man had dealt with similar cuts before and would consult his own doctor, he said, so the lifeguards left him sitting on the beach, blood drying in the sand and on his leg.

So far this summer, the most serious types of injuries have been few. About a month ago, a young man from Corona was paralyzed from the waist down when he dove into the surf and hit his head on the bottom, Assistant City Atty. Bill Amsbary said.

Earlier this year, EMT Mike Gifford said, a surfer and a body board rider collided, knocking the body boarder unconscious. He slipped underwater but was found quickly because his board, attached to him by a leash, floated above him. He was revived but dazed, Gifford said. "He didn't know his name for a while."

This year's injury tally is small compared to three years ago, the summer after the severe winter storms that churned the surf and ocean floor, Barth said. That year, 35 swimmers and surfers went to the hospital, he said.

Lifeguard Robert Thomas, Barth's partner in the Jeep, suffered a neck injury a few years ago. Diving into the ocean through a wave, he hit a sand bar.

"I dove in and bam!" Thomas said. "I know how those people feel, and it's not nice." He lost feeling in his left leg for five months but has since recovered fully.

Most of the Jeep patrol's work, however, is not bandaging wounds, but preventing injuries and backing up the guards in the towers as they dash into the water for rescues.

Driving along the mile-long strand on a recent Saturday, Thomas stopped the Jeep to warn two boys who had playfully buried themselves up to their necks in the sand just a few feet from the water's edge. One good, hard crash of a wave and water would rush over them, getting into their mouths and weighing down the sand to prevent their escape, he told them. Seconds later, the boys were free and shaking off the sand.

A few minutes later, the Jeep stopped as two teen-age boys, racing across the Jeep's path, ran into the water and dove through shallow waves. Barth hopped out and waded into the water to tell them that such careless diving could put them in wheelchairs.

"I didn't like the way they were diving into the water," he said. "We're making every effort to educate the public about diving into any water where you don't know what's below the surface." The boys just shrugged their shoulders, he said.

The day remained quiet, the surf mild, but the lifeguards were prepared for all that to change.

"On a day like today, even a marginal swimmer can make it way out there," Gifford said. "Say he's on a Boogie Board without a leash and a wave knocks him off. His Boogie Board's gone and we haven't seen him take one stroke. That's what we have to be prepared for."

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