NEWPORT BEACH — They are a familiar sight on Orange County's beaches: lifeguards in their trademark red shorts watching the shoreline from their towers, rolling by in Jeeps or patrolling the waves in shallow boats, warning swimmers not to stray too far from shore.
But county lifeguards are adding a new tool to their rescue repertoire: "personal watercraft."
In a three-day training program that ends today, 23 lifeguards from Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Lake Mission Viejo--plus a visiting crew from Kill Devil Hills, N.C.--braved the chilly waves to learn the fine points of operating Yamaha WaveRunners as rescue vehicles.
The craft can carry two rescuers or be operated by a solo rescuer if necessary, Newport Beach Marine Safety Lt. Eric Bauer said.
Lifeguards praise the speed and mobility of the personal craft. They are especially enthusiastic about the sled that trails behind, giving rescuers a platform on which to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation or begin other lifesaving measures almost as soon as they reach a victim.
"It's an easy one-person launch, they're fast and can operate in very shallow water," Bauer said. "And since they have no propeller, it reduces the danger to the victim."
"I hope we get some of these soon," said James Griffin, a former Navy rescue swimmer who now works in Kill Devil Hills.
One incident that prompted the use of the vehicles by rescue agencies was the death of 15-year-old Adam Bischoff, who drowned in the Los Angeles River after torrential rains in February, 1992, flooded the river in the San Fernando Valley.
Rescuers tried every technique available, but were unable to save Bischoff, who had ridden his bicycle near the edge of a channel and fallen in. Even if Bischoff had been able to catch the ropes that rescuers threw to him as 30-m.p.h. currents swept him downstream, his safe retrieval was far from assured. The drag on the other end of the line would have been 3,200 pounds or more--enough to easily sweep the person throwing the rope into the water with him, watercraft rescue instructor Kerry Smith told his students.
Although there are no guarantees in emergencies, lifeguards believe that having the watercraft could prevent such deaths. Los Angeles County emergency service agencies began using the craft about a year after Bischoff's death.
The personal watercraft are a boon in swift-water rescues on rivers and in the ocean, Bauer said, because their top speed of 50 m.p.h. lets them keep up with the current. Rescuers can speed alongside victims, pull them onto the rescue sled--a Boogie board-type platform towed behind the watercraft--and carry them to safety.
In coastal Orange County, the watercraft will be primarily used on the rivers and creeks that flow into the ocean.
Newport Beach is training its eight permanent lifeguards to use the devices to back up Fire Department crews for storm season rescues in the Santa Ana River and San Diego Creek.
Bauer said that during the rainy season, one designated lifeguard is on call and, in severe storm alerts, might take the craft home overnight so he could take it straight to a rescue site.
And in Newport Beach, lifeguards will also train to use the craft for multiple rescues in case of an airplane crash into the ocean or Newport Bay.
"We plan to incorporate it into air crash scenarios," Bauer said. "We will be developing a plan for Orange County airport over the next six months."
But Newport Beach's pair of WaveRunners, which look like snowmobiles for the water, made their debut in the waves last summer.
Newport Beach and Huntington Beach each have two of the watercraft, donated to the cities by local dealers. Other cities hope to work out similar arrangements through a Yamaha grant program for public agencies.