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Laguna's Lifeguards Cry 'Help!'

Association asks the City Council to hire more well-trained, full-time people year-round.

March 29, 2004|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

Laguna Beach lifeguards are lobbying for more full-time guards to patrol the city's coastline, arguing that lifeguards as well as beachgoers are at risk because part-time guards have less training.

In a letter to the City Council, the Laguna Beach Lifeguard Assn. accuses City Manager Kenneth C. Frank of ignoring the need for more full-time guards for 10 years.

Association leaders say that Frank has forced the Marine Safety Department to rely on part-time lifeguards with less training to work throughout the year instead of hiring more qualified full-time lifeguards.

Among the problems that creates, said association member Tom Trager, is that part-timers hired and trained by the city are then recruited by other agencies as full-time employees.

"Things can't get any worse for us," said Trager. "We've got an undertrained, inconsistent work force."

Laguna Beach's three full-time lifeguards and their supervisor patrol 5 1/2 miles of beach, from just south of Irvine Cove to the Montage Resort and Spa. Laguna Beach attracts nearly 3 million visitors a year, said Mark Klosterman, chief of the department.

During the peak summer months, the four full-time employees are joined by about 100 seasonal workers, a typical practice for beach cities.

The lifeguards are asking the city to hire three more full-time lifeguards and change the status of two more from part-time to regular part-time in order for them to qualify for benefits.

The lifeguards say the city's part-time guards are adequately trained and can fill the requirements of the job, including observation and making rescues from a lifeguard tower, and operating communications equipment, said Scott Diederich, a lieutenant.

However, full-time lifeguards are trained as emergency medical technicians, certified as scuba divers and trained in underwater search and rescue.

The lifeguard association also says that throughout the year the department relies on six seasonal, or part-time, lifeguards who work as full-time employees but who do not receive benefits.

The city manager disputed the lifeguards' claim that their needs have been ignored.

"It sounds like there's no appreciation for some of the things the council has done [for lifeguards] in recent years," Frank said.

The city added a full-time lifeguard three years ago, increased the budget for seasonal help and, last year, began replacing the 39 lifeguard towers, which cost about $20,000 each, he said.

"The Marine Safety Department has been treated very fairly by the City Council," Frank said.

The City Council has not entered the debate, said Councilman Wayne Baglin, because it would be inappropriate to comment on labor issues, which are handled by the City Manager.

Part-time lifeguards in Laguna account for about 71% of the lifeguard payroll, according to the city budget.

In Newport Beach, where 8 million people annually visit its seven miles of beach, 40% of the marine safety department payroll is earmarked for seasonal lifeguards and 60% goes to full-time employees, said Donna Boston, a spokeswoman for the Fire Department, which oversees the lifeguards.

In Huntington Beach, with 3 1/2 miles of beach and about 8 million visitors a year, 60% to 70% of the payroll goes to full-time employees and the rest to part-timers, said Kyle Lindo, chief of the Marine Safety Operations.

The heavy use of seasonal lifeguards "is not the ultimate in professionalism," said Robert McGowan, president of the California Surf Lifesaving Assn., a professional lifeguard group for agencies in Southern and Central California.

"If they're using seasonals in a permanent year-round position, it's fairly obvious that they are in need of more full-time staff," he said.

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