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Having the Time of Their Lives--and Saving Others' : Members of an Elite Lifeguard Corps Love the Work and Never Get Tired of the Office

September 18, 1988|KENNETH J. GARCIA | Times Staff Writer

Every Easter vacation, about 300 young men and women gather on a beach in Santa Monica to compete in a modern Darwinian ritual. But in this race, even the fittest often don't survive.

At the appointed time, they line up, run into the water and fight, crawl, push and do their best to swim around a series of strategically placed buoys in a 1-mile race. For some, it will be the most important contest of their lives.

The race decides who will be the next group of new lifeguards in Los Angeles County. With a little luck, a large dose of desire and Olympic-caliber swimming skills, about 60 will make it each year. If they exhibit endurance along with speed, most will stay for the next 30 years.

"It looks like everybody is trying to drown each other," said Jonathan Edge, a seasonal county lifeguard. "The people want it so bad that it gets crazy out there. But how can you blame them? This isn't so much a job as a way of life."

Edge works at Malibu's Surfrider Beach, but it's difficult to say exactly when he's working. He usually shows up there on his days off, "just to hang out" with the other lifeguards, watch his colleagues surf during their daily half-hour workout and to swim. Mostly to swim. With his red hair and pale complexion, he seems an unlikely candidate to fill a sun-drenched job. But, he says, he can't resist.

'It's a Great Job'

"I thought I was going to do it for one summer when I was in school, but I liked it so I came back," he said. "And then I came back again. And this is my third summer. What can I say? It's a great job."

For people like Capt. Gary Crum, becoming a lifeguard was a matter of tradition. His father, Dwight, began as a lifeguard before World War II and stayed in the department for the next 34 years, rising to assistant director of the Department of Beaches and Harbors before retiring in 1974. A picture of his father and the 3-year-old future lifeguard captain walking along Redondo Beach hangs on the wall behind Crum's desk.

The desk is the centerpiece in a small office, about three stories above the Pacific Ocean, that is arguably among the nicest work places in Los Angeles. From Crum's vantage point at the Venice lifeguard headquarters, he has a 180-degree view of the northern and southern sections of the beach, as well as a sizable sun deck outside. The station, near the end of Venice Boulevard, is about 50 yards from the water's edge. It is one of the reasons people such as Crum, who joined the force in 1966 straight out of high school, stay on as lifeguards when their friends are asking them why they don't get "real" jobs.

The lifeguards believe their jobs, which last year involved watching over 55 million visitors to Los Angeles' beaches, are very real. Today, full-time permanent lifeguard can make between $36,000 and $50,000 per year, depending on their experience and whether they are eligible for bonuses for passing extra paramedic courses or joining the department's diving and recovery team.

Patrol 40 Miles of Beaches

"The reason why L.A.'s lifeguards are the best in the world is that it's the only place where it's a year-round profession," Crum said. "People look on this as a career because the pay is good, the benefits are good and, obviously, lifeguards enjoy their jobs."

Last month, the Los Angeles lifeguards, who patrol 40 miles of public beaches from the Ventura County border almost to Long Beach and including Catalina Island, won the 1988 National Lifeguard Championship held in Cape May, N.J. To say that they won is to say that sprinter Carl Lewis runs fast. They scored more points than the second-, third- and fourth-place teams combined.

"This job is not for everybody," Crum said. "Some people don't like the pressure involved in having to save lives. It used to be that people who hung out and surfed at the beach and were good swimmers might become lifeguards. But today the only people who get picked are at the top of the pack. The best are Olympic-caliber swimmers and the rest are probably just a notch below that. It's incredibly competitive. But we have to have a way to separate the men from the boys."

In the future, one way may be to determine who can match a great freestyle stroke with computer programming skills. Today, the lifeguard operation, from the department's budget to its payroll and scheduling, is done on computers. The department only started using computers about four years ago, but now the performance of the 600 seasonal and the 100 full-time, permanent lifeguards is tallied on video display terminals.

Each of the department's 7,063 rescues during 1987--a statistic that used to be logged in longhand--is entered in the computer, along with the beach where the rescue was performed and the type of emergency.

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