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From the Archives: BAYWATCH: The Real L.A. County Lifeguards

Author: Nancy J. Rigg

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2017-07-06
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In addition to lifesaving duties, Baywatch crews must be comfortable rooting around in the boat's engine room, operating high tech navigational systems, and serving as ambassadors when interacting with the public.


Originally published in our March-April 1999 issue.

They may be buff.  They may even be bronzed and beautiful.  But the Hollywood "Baywatch" stereotype ends when television sets are turned off and the authentic Los Angeles County Lifeguards spring into action.  In the real world, "Baywatch" is the name of a fleet of versatile, state-of-the-art rescue boats, not a flock of bubbly babes and brawny beaus squeezed into swimsuits two sizes too small.  And it is knowledge, athletic ability, and a depth of aquatic rescue experience, not mere sex appeal, that distinguishes the Los Angeles County Lifeguards from their TV counterparts and sets them apart from the average beach-slogging landlubber.

Twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, they're out there.  Working the beaches.  Managing SCUBA diving accidents, medical emergencies, and cliff rescues.  Responding to flood disasters and swiftwater rescues.  Teaching kids about the joys and potential hazards of the ocean environment.  And just beyond the surf line, lifeguards who have the necessary blend of mechanical skill and marine savvy work the "Baywatch" rescue boats.

Baywatch: Boats Not Babes

Capt. Shelly Butler has been a Los Angeles County Lifeguard for 35-years, spending much of this time on Baywatch.  "In Los Angeles," Butler recounted, "there have been rescue boats in operation for at least fifty years.  We've used everything from whaling boats, like they had back in Boston at the turn-of-the-century, to dories, to cabin cruisers.  We now have the 'Rolls Royce' of rescue boats."

The custom-built Baywatch boats have been refined, modified, and outfitted to operate in the most extreme weather conditions.  All nine boats in the fleet are similar in power, speed, design, and construction, weighing nearly ten tons each.  The boats range in length from 32 to 34 feet, with 12-14 feet at the beam, and have a two-foot draft.   Each boat is powered by two turbo diesel engines, giving them a top speed of more than 30 knots. 

"We go on calls in all kinds of weather," Butler explained, "so these boats have to perform.  I've been out there in some of the worst conditions you can imagine, and there's been many a time that I've thanked my department and the boat operators who came before me for having the foresight that has allowed us to have the kind of equipment that we operate today."

Russell Walker, Assistant Chief Lifeguard, coordinates rescue boat operations for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, Lifeguard Division.  "The main function of the rescue boats is to back up the beach lifeguards," he said.  "If there are long rescues or multiple rescues, the boats help the beach guards affect those rescues.  But they also handle marine duties, including boat distress calls, boat fires, SCUBA accidents, medical emergencies, and recovery activities."

According to Capt. Steve Moseley, Lifeguard Public Information Officer, "There are 31-miles of beach spread out over 70-miles of Los Angeles County coastline that we actively lifeguard, plus Catalina Island."  120 full-time lifeguards are on duty year-round.  The ranks swell with seasonal lifeguards to a total of 690 during peak beach-going months.  With 50-million or more visitors per year, Moseley indicated that lifeguards perform an average of 12,000 rescues annually.  "A rescue is defined as any time a lifeguard enters the water and assists a person back to the beach," he said.  "This might involve someone who falls off a personal watercraft and gets knocked unconscious, a kid who slips off his boogie board and can't make it back to shore, or someone stuck in a rip current."


Rip Currents: A Little Understood Hazard

The majority of ocean rescues involve victims caught in potentially deadly rip currents.  Self-dispatching beach lifeguards rely upon their extraordinary swimming skills and aquatic rescue techniques to affect the majority of rescues.  Because many beach goers lack familiarity with ocean conditions, lifeguards spend lot of time keeping people out of trouble to begin with and educating them about the hazards. 

"Our main focus is prevention," explained Chief Walker.  "We continually talk to people who come to the beach about the hazards, and we do a lot of community outreach.  But people from all over the world come here.  They may or may not have the swimming skills necessary to handle being in the ocean."

According to Capt. Moseley, "An awful lot of people who spend time training in swimming pools are totally unfamiliar with the ocean environment.  With the surf, the temperature, the chop, the wind, the fact that you can't see clearly and you don't have a nice black line on the bottom to keep you oriented, it's takes a whole different technique to swim the ocean."

"People look at the ocean and think it's a big swimming pool with waves," Ocean Lifeguard Specialist Phil Navarro added.  "They might have some vague concept about 'riptides' and 'the undertow,’ but not really understand the danger.  There is no such thing as an 'undertow' or 'riptide.’  There are rip currents, but they don't pull you 'under,’ they pull you out to sea." 

Chief Walker indicated that although avoiding rip currents to begin with is the safest alternative, there are ways to help yourself out if you are caught in one.  "In order to swim out of a rip current, you can do two things," he said, "tread water until the current carries you to the end where you can swim out of it, or swim at right angles to the rip, parallel to the beach, until you're out of it."  Most people who are unfamiliar with rip currents try to fight them, exhausting themselves even as they are carried away from the shoreline.  "The harder they fight," Walker added, "the farther out they go."

Despite efforts to prevent people from entering hazard zones, multiple victims occasionally end up together in a hefty rip current, sending beach lifeguards sprinting across the sand with rescue cans in hand.  Phil Navarro recalled working on Baywatch del Rey one afternoon when, "We saw the lifeguards from the beach running down and hitting the water on what we call a 'blitz.’  A blitz is any time you have three or more people caught in a rip.  There were at least six people in the water who were in trouble.  As we pulled up to the guy who was the furthest out, we could see him 'climbing the ladder.’"  Navarro demonstrated a move that is akin to a badly executed dog paddle.  "The guy clearly didn't know how to swim and he was going down.  I dove off the back of the boat, but his head was already a foot to a foot and a half under water when I got to him.  I pulled him up and he was fine, since he had just gone under, but he was completely exhausted."

Although working the Baywatch boat involves much more than "jumping off the boat to make rescues," Navarro emphasized that "working the rip currents" is one of the key Baywatch functions.  Between the beach lifeguards and the Baywatch crew, every victim in this particular incident was rescued and safely returned to shore.


Marine Duties

The first modern Baywatch boat was stationed off Catalina Island in 1970.  The current fleet, which operates from eight locations, has a crew of two lifeguards per vessel, serving as boat operators and deckhands.  "The relationship between the boat operator and the crew is critical," Capt. Shelly Butler explained.  "All of our deckhands are very good in the water.  They have to be lifeguards first."  In addition to lifesaving duties, Baywatch crews must be comfortable rooting around in the boat's engine room, operating high tech navigational systems, and serving as ambassadors when interacting with the public, including "influential" yacht owners who may have failed to read the operator's manual prior to launching out to sea. 

"We need people with mechanical ability to work as deckhands," Butler said bluntly.  "It takes a minimum of two years to be thrown into enough situations to build experience.  When I put my deckhands on a boat that's taking on water, they have to know how to use a salvage pump, locate where the water is coming in, do repairs, and handle any number of different situations and personalities.  This takes seasoning." 

Phil Navarro, who has been a deckhand for the past three years, thrives on the challenge of being both a lifeguard, with crack rescue capability, and Mr. Goodwrench.  "Obviously, the engines are the most important part of the boat," he said with a grin. 

"You don't want to go on a run to help the public and lose an engine.  That would be embarrassing." 

For Capt. Butler, diplomacy is the key to assisting wealthy, influential boat owners who find themselves in similarly embarrassing, possibly even life-threatening situations.  With or without receiving distress calls, when thick fog rolls in, Butler and Navarro automatically hit the waves in search of boats that may have sailed to Catalina beneath clear skies in the morning, but end up floundering as they head back towards the mainland.  "You can tell when a boat is lost, because you can watch their zigzag pattern on the radar," Butler said.  "We try not to wait until a 'mayday' call before offering them our assistance."

"People know very little about boats," Phil Navarro added.  Because boats are luxury items, with a powerful industry lobby, few laws restrict who can operate a vessel.  "People want to buy a boat, stick it on a trailer, and take it right into the water," Navarro explained.  "I guess if there was a law that said you had to take a two-week course on boat handling, radio operations, and marine safety; it would be a sales deterrent."  Although having an anchor, flares, flotation, first aid, and a radio on board are required, Navarro said, "A lot of boat owners don't know how to use their radios, or their GPS, Global Positioning Systems.  They have the equipment on board, but they don't know anything about it." 

Capt. Butler added expansively, "If you are a doctor, a lawyer, or the president of a big firm, and you had your nice sixty-foot yacht loaded with radar, GPS, and everything else, you might not be familiar with how to use the equipment.  You might have clients or friends on board when the fog comes in.  And you might get lost and not be able to find your way back to the harbor.  We don't want to come up out of the dense fog with the Baywatch and say, 'Hi, are you lost?'  We already know that you're lost."  Butler and Navarro try to use what they describe as a "more friendly,” tactful approach.

Butler chuckled, "I've never had anybody turn me down on this offer when I come up and say, 'Hi, how are you doing today?  Are you heading back to Marina del Rey?'  The guy will usually say, 'Well, yes, I sure am.'  We'll then say, 'We're going that way, too, would you like to follow us?'  They <<always take the escort!"

In heavy fog conditions, Baywatch del Rey frequently ends up escorting forty or fifty boats back to the harbor during a single shift.  "We gather up four or five targets," Butler said, "escort them into the harbor, release them, and head back out again."


Teamwork And Experience

According to Phil Navarro, over the years, standards have been tightened for lifeguards serving as deckhands.  "Originally," he explained, "all you needed before you could work as a deckhand on the boat was your SCUBA certification and a boating safety class taken through the Coast Guard.  But none of that taught you about what you were going to do on the Baywatch boats specifically.  Most of our training has been gained from actually working on the boat."

In 1997, a Rescue Boat Deckhand class developed by Shelly Butler and lifeguard training specialist Terry Yamamoto, was granted state funding.  The program includes navigation, emergency boat repair, securing techniques, maintenance, medical applications, and the use of all equipment on board a rescue vessel.

"People think of the Baywatch boats as big, sophisticated pieces of equipment that go out to rescue people," Butler explained.  "But it's not that at all.  A rescue boat is just one big, floating toolbox.  It doesn't do anything.  You can get the rescue boat there, with radar, GPS, and antenna all over so that it looks like Sputnik, but once you're on scene, the responsibility is shifted from the boat to the deckhand."

"When we go on a call, the skipper operates the boat and I do all the labor," Navarro said.  "If there's a boat that's lost power and gone onto the beach, I'll get the towline all set and ready to go.  If we're responding to a boat that's taking on water, I'll pull out the salvage pump.  If we're going on a dive operation, I'll get the dive gear.  If there's a boat on fire, I'll pull up fire gear.  We have full turnouts, helmets, boots.  In addition to other training, we go through marine firefighting courses before we work the boats."

While Capt. Butler acknowledges the firefighting capability of Baywatch crews, he is quick to add, "We don't profess to be firefighters.  We've had decent training, and we've responded to some impressive fires, including the Redondo Pier fire and countless boat fires.  We can put the wet stuff on the red stuff, but I'm not kidding when I say that I want the fireboat on scene as soon as possible.  Nobody can overhaul a fire like those guys do. When there's a boat fire, we focus on firefighter protection and victim rescue."

Butler scoffs at the idea of measuring a successful boat fire response by having a smoldering craft slump into the water.  "Putting a fire out by having the boat sink is not a successful operation," he said.  "A success involves bringing the boat back to shore.  As the fireboat is spraying water into a burning boat, we get the salvage pumps going to get the water out.  Plus, the deckhand does whatever repair work necessary to plug holes that have burned through the hull."

One memorable boat fire in Marina del Rey involved the "Sundowner,” a yacht that had "40-60 people on it, all jumping into the water," Butler recounted.  The three-alarm fire involved shore-based firefighters "walking the docks with their heavy turnouts on.  If any of those firefighters had fallen into the water, I doubt that they would have been able to swim."  Since merging with the Los Angeles County Fire Department in 1994, Butler indicated that lifeguards have provided "an added dimension" of firefighter protection, enhancing both rescue operations and personnel safety.



Boat fires.  Heart attacks.  Fishing vessels taking on water.  Any number of circumstances can inspire a boating distress call.  One increasing area of concern to Baywatch crews is the lack of radio skill among modern boat owners.  "If someone places a distress call on a cellular phone," Navarro said, "we may or may not get the call."  9-1-1 calls from cellular phones in California are routed through the California Highway Patrol.  Calls are then dispatched through the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, resulting in unnecessary response delays.

"When we're on duty," Butler said, "we closely monitor the radios, both the marine frequencies and the lifeguard frequencies.  If we hear something happening on the beach, we're already moving before headquarters calls us.  If we hear something happening in our area involving boats, we’re usually moving before the Coast Guard calls us.  The Coast Guard likes working with us.  We're a team."


Swiftwater Rescue

California is famous for its good weather.  However, according to the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, torrential storms, which can spawn deadly flash floods, have killed more people in California over the past twenty years than earthquakes.  Ocean lifeguards in San Diego were the first to adapt whitewater rafting rescue techniques for urban "swiftwater rescue" in the late 1970s.  Despite early attempts by Shelly Butler, Mickey Gallagher, and other pioneering County Lifeguards to tailor San Diego's model to Los Angeles County, "there was a lot of political rebellion and friction among agencies back then," Butler explained.

The concept languished for more than a dozen years until 1992, when the death of fifteen-year old Adam Bischoff in the flood-swollen Los Angeles River galvanized the community.  "Until the public got into it, nothing changed," Capt. Gallagher said.  With political and community support, swiftwater rescue pioneers from within a variety of public safety agencies, including county lifeguards, banded together to create the largest multi-agency swiftwater rescue program in the United States. 

Although Gallagher credits several of his fire-rescue and law enforcement colleagues for the success of the Los Angeles County swiftwater rescue program, he is quick to note that "the deaths of too many victims have preceded development of what should be a standard action plan in every community nationwide.  If it weren't for families here in Los Angeles who lost loved ones in floods putting a lot of pressure on the system, we wouldn't have a swiftwater rescue program today."

All full-time county lifeguards are certified "Swiftwater Rescue Technicians,” based on the internationally recognized standards developed by Rescue 3, International.  When storm conditions warrant it, county lifeguards deploy with Los Angeles City and County Fire Department swiftwater rescue teams to pre-designated locations throughout the county.  Capt. Gallagher, who also serves on the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (OES) Swiftwater Rescue Committee, hopes to see the concept expand nationwide.  "Every community that has water running through it should have an action plan to handle events that happen in water, whether it's a car that goes off an embankment, a kid who falls into swift water, or a major event like flooding."

"I'm really excited about the OES swiftwater rescue program," Chief Russell Walker added.  "By working together with other agencies, helping each other, sharing ideas, and working on collaborative efforts, our service to the public is only going to get better."  Experience has demonstrated that natural disasters can quickly overwhelm even the best emergency resources, Walker explained.  "One service can't handle it all, especially in a major disaster like a flood.  You have to have multi-agency policies in place.  Swiftwater rescue is the next level of urban search and rescue.  We, as lifeguards, are water experts.  This is what we do.  Our participation only makes a swiftwater rescue team all the stronger."

Capt. Gallagher worries that the rush to develop nationwide standards for swiftwater rescue will not include swimming skills.  In 1998, at least eight rescuers lost their lives in swiftwater incidents.  Capt. Butler is equally concerned about boat handling, shuddering at televised images of untrained fire and law enforcement personnel, wearing heavy turnout gear or gun belts, scrambling to borrow privately owned bass boats or power watercraft as they struggle without an action plan to respond to a major flood.  Qualifications to serve as a Los Angeles County Lifeguard are stringent.  "Everyone, male and female, from the chief down to the rookies" has to meet re-check standards annually, said Gallagher.


Lifeguard Standards: No Exceptions

Women first joined the lifeguard service in the early 1970s, prior to the advent of affirmative action.  Shannon Carr-Davey has been a lifeguard since 1980. "The lifeguard service has always been adamant about competing on an equal basis," she said.

Rookie lifeguard Danielle Yardley qualified during one of the most challenging mass swims in recent memory.  The powerful 1998 El Nino created intense storm conditions along the California coast.  "On the day of our swim," Yardley recalled, "it was windy and stormy.  Sand was blowing everywhere, and the ocean was pure whitecaps."

Steve Moseley was helping administer the swim test.  "There were 200 people ready to do the 1,000-yard swim," he said, "and just as they started off, a squall blew in and dumped on them.  We measure waves in intervals.  Usually you have an interval of 10-12 seconds between waves.  The interval on that day was maybe two-seconds.  It was brutal."

Above Left: The original cover image from our Mar-Apr 1999 issue: Los Angeles County Fire Department Lifeguards – the real BAYWATCH heroes – performed 13,717 rescues during 1998 – a severe El Nino season.  Due to their efforts, though, not a single person drowned in the L.A. surf.  Photo: Nancy J. Rigg

Fewer than 120 people completed the test, and more than fifty candidates tangled with a nasty rip current and had to be rescued.  Danielle Yardley was "the only female candidate out of thirty-nine in her class to pass," Moseley said.  A half-dozen women also qualified during other try-outs.  In honor of Yardley's achievement, she was awarded the coveted "Most Outstanding Candidate" award. 

Many candidates who join the service begin their careers as aquatic athletes.  Shannon Carr-Davey has competed in numerous athletic events over the years.  With her husband, Los Angeles County Lifeguard Scott Davey, and his brother, San Diego Lifeguard Chuck Davey, she represented the United States from San Diego in the 1991 Dragon Boat World Champion Invitational in Singapore.  "We were the first non-Asian team to win the race," Carr-Davey said.  Numerous other athletic events throughout the year challenge lifeguards, who thrive on the blend of "athletics and EMS."  For Carr-Davey and other career lifeguards, "Lifeguarding is more than a job.  It's a whole lifestyle.  As an athlete, I find it very rewarding.  The number one reason that I stay in shape is so that I can jump on any of the equipment that we use to save a life."

With an average of 60-million beach visitors per year, the Los Angeles County Lifeguards pride themselves on their safety record.  "In 1998, which had one of the most powerful El Nino conditions in years," Capt. Moseley said, "we performed 13,717 rescues, with no drownings."

Related story: Lifeguards: “Honestly, it’s Okay To Talk To Us”

Nancy J. Rigg is a writer, filmmaker and consultant with an extensive background in Search and Rescue, public safety education, and disaster preparedness.  She is a frequent contributor to 9-1-1 Magazine.



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