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There's No Holiday From Safety for County's Lifeguards

Precautions: Fourth of July is expected to bring out the crowds, so beach authorities say they are preparing for the worst.

July 03, 2002|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even before the man in the long-sleeved blue shirt abandoned his bright-orange body board and frantically began swimming toward shore, Julie Beeles knew that he was in trouble.

"I could see he was trying to paddle in and that he wasn't getting anywhere," said Beeles, a roving lifeguard at Huntington State Beach. "I'll never understand why they ditch their boards when they get caught in a rip current. We keep telling them: 'The board floats; you don't.' "

Before a nasty riptide could carry him helplessly out to sea, the man and his body board were towed in by a lifeguard aboard a personal watercraft.

"I guess that kind of stuff makes our job fun," she said.

If so, then the fun is just beginning for Beeles and the other 100 lifeguards who patrol Huntington and Bolsa Chica state beaches. In a few days, lifeguards all along Southern California's coast will be overwhelmed by beachgoers.

Last year, lifeguards at Huntington and Bolsa Chica made 4,880 rescues. More than 50 came on one day--the Fourth of July. This year, lifeguard supervisor Mike Broussard is trying to prepare for the worst.

About 75 lifeguards, or three-fourths of the staff, will be deployed on the holiday. Some will monitor the 69-degree water from lifeguard towers and trucks, some will make rescues from boats or personal water crafts and others will keep the peace on ATVs, bicycles and sport utility vehicles.

And if Thursday's forecast holds--sunny weather and small swells--it could be pretty crazy from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

"It's the one day of the year when it's almost anarchy," Broussard said. "We pray a lot on the Fourth. We see a lot of people swimming in their pants and T-shirts. And when the waves are smaller, it's worse for us. Because everybody seems to want to charge the surf."

One dangerous element has been taken out of mix--alcohol. Since 1992, alcohol has been banned at Huntington and Bolsa Chica. Since then, there have only been four drownings--three last year, two of them alcohol-related, and one this year. Before the ban, he said the beach recorded far more drownings.

Of course, banning alcohol doesn't stop the beach party. People still find a way to sneak in a six-pack or a bottle of wine and some will come to the beach after they've hit the local pubs.

If the Fourth is anything like last year, Huntington and Bolsa Chica will be jammed. By noon last year, all the parking lots were full. In the afternoon, people began illegally parking cars along a two-mile stretch of Pacific Coast Highway, from Beach Boulevard south to the jetty. "We towed a lot of cars," Broussard said.

Lifeguards also spent the day settling disputes over the beach's 201 fire rings and treating injured cyclists who tried to worm their way through the crowds. They also treated unsuspecting swimmers who stepped on sting rays. To prepare his staff for the crush, Broussard had each lifeguard take a refresher course on CPR and first aid.

Because the beach is flooded with families on a holiday, it is almost certain there will be lost children--a pet peeve of lifeguard Cory Tague.

"It's not uncommon for us to hold 20 or 25 kids on a weekend day," Tague said. "I can't believe how many parents just let their kids go in the water and then turn around and forget about them. Because they see lifeguards, they think their kids are safe. They don't understand the hidden dangers."

On this weekday afternoon, the hidden danger is a strong rip current bending around Towers 5 and 6 at Huntington State Beach.

Looking through his black polarized sunglasses, Tague is able to predict the next rescue.

"Something's about to happen here," Tague, 26, said. "With these glasses, you can spot the rip currents pretty easily. Just look for the brown areas of foamy water moving out to sea."

Minutes later, two body boarders are led ashore by a lifeguard.

"We'd rather get there too soon and not have to make a rescue," Tague said. "It's a lot better than getting there too late."

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