When lifeguards find themselves in trouble on dry land, they are trained to head for the water where they can quickly put a few meters between themselves and an unruly mob.
But the county beach patrollers may find themselves heading indoors for self-defense courses as a result of a series of recent attacks on lifeguards by transients, Los Angeles County's chief lifeguard said Wednesday.
Chief Howard Lee said the county Department of Beaches and Harbors will institute "some kind of policy change" to counter the problem, including the possibility of self-defense courses for the county's 700 full-time and seasonal lifeguards.
"We're quite concerned about it, but we don't want our lifeguards getting into a police-officer mode" where they would have to abandon their primary responsibilities, he said. "We want to come up with some response but we don't want to lose track of our primary mission, which is to watch the water."
On Tuesday, a veteran county lifeguard was stabbed in the abdomen with a corkscrew by a barefoot assailant who had followed him up the ramp to his Santa Monica Beach watchtower. The unidentified transient demanded money from lifeguard Terry Hearst, 34, and when Hearst said he had none, the man "sprang up and swung the corkscrew," according to authorities.
Hearst was treated for a four-inch cut at Santa Monica Hospital Medical Center. The 15-year lifeguard veteran, who also strained his back when he tumbled seven feet to the sand as the attacker lunged at him, was released from the hospital late Tuesday. The assailant fled from the beach and up the stairs into Palisades Park.
Officials said it was the third incident in three weeks in which lifeguards patrolling Santa Monica Beach have been accosted by transients. In the two previous incidents, the lifeguards were not injured.
Lee said he has asked his staff for a report on all altercations involving lifeguards in recent years "so we can weigh the pros and cons of various responses."
"We'll do anything that we can to keep the lifeguards from getting hurt," Lee said. "We try to not to get caught up in situations that require a police officer, but if it's a matter of self-defense, then maybe that's the direction we'll end up going in."
Lifeguards generally do not carry cash or valuables because of past incidents in which their watchtowers have been ransacked while they were in the ocean performing rescues. When crimes are committed on the beach, lifeguards radio police for assistance.
"It's a wonderful situation," lifeguard Lt. Dick Heineman said sarcastically. "We're trying to protect them and they're stealing from us."
Lifeguards and police said the problem of homeless people on beaches between Venice and Santa Monica has steadily increased in the last two years. However, they say most of the problems involve illegal drinking on the beach or people with dogs.
"It's a growing problem," Lee said. "And we're going to have to deal with it."