Junior Lifeguards train for ocean rescues

Jack and Maxwell hang in there during the cliff-rescue simulation.
Jack and Maxwell hang in there during the cliff-rescue simulation.
(Savanah Duffy)

A day at the beach is the ultimate way to relax and have fun — take a nap in the sun and get a tan, play fetch with your dog, or grab your surfboard and ride the waves. But when you’re a lifeguard, everyone else’s summertime luxury is what keeps you on the edge of your seat with your eyes peeled.

San Diego’s Junior Lifeguard Program offers two, 4-week-long training sessions each summer to help youth, ages 7-17, learn the basic skills needed to pursue a seasonal or permanent career as a professional lifeguard — basic first aid, CPR, water rescue techniques, area familiarity and more.

On July 9, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department lifeguards provided Group A (14- to 17-year-old members) of the Junior Lifeguard Program with the opportunity to experience what happens during a cliff rescue in a simulation exercise.

Two at a time, Junior Lifeguards took turns donning helmets and securing harnesses around their legs and chests before being lifted from Sunset Cliffs Boulevard and Osprey Street in Ocean Beach, and gently lowered some 15 feet down the cliff side via the SDFD lifeguard rescue apparatus, Rescue 44.

The rescue vehicle is a 4-wheel drive fire engine topped with a “knuckle-boom” crane to allow for precise movement. It’s controlled with Bluetooth technology to let the operator dictate movement from farther away than previously used, remote-control-operated cranes. Lifeguard John Bahl said after making the switch to Rescue 44, rescue time was cut down from 32 minutes to 9 minutes — a vital upgrade to assist in getting patients to the hospital during the “Golden Hour” — the one hour following an injury during which it’s most likely medical attention will be able to save a life.

Lifeguard II Michael Smoker reported there have been fewer cliff rescues this year due to OB’s Ladera Street parking lot being closed off, but a typical year averages 80-100 cliff rescues, making cliff safety an important focus for lifeguards.

In addition to the simulated cliff rescue, groups of Junior Lifeguards learned to tie knots used for securing a rope to an anchor (a nearby pole or a stake in the ground), so the rescuer can be lowered down to the victim (there are about four to five key knots needed to create a proper anchor). Junior Lifeguards also learned how to properly secure an injured individual on a stretcher to ensure the individual doesn’t fall.

Several Juniors had similar motivations for spending one month of their summer vacations doing lifeguard training: a desire to be in the ocean as much as possible and parental override.

“My mom kind of made me do it at first,” said Junior Lifeguard Haley, “but then I had fun, so I did it the next year and now this is my third year. It’s just really cool that you get to come to the beach every day and learn a lot.”

Junior guard Ryan similarly admitted that his parents pushed him to join, but being from out of state, he loves the warm weather and great surfing so much that he is also back for his third year of training.

Joining the Junior Lifeguards

Tuesday morning’s exercise was just one of many drills employed by the Junior Lifeguard Program to prepare kids for a lifeguard career. Learning about lifeguard boats, operating kayaks and even jumping from the Ocean Beach Pier are all part of the hands-on training junior lifeguards receive from professional lifeguards.

The trainees are separated depending on their age: J. Grommets (ages 7-8), Group C (ages 9-11), Group B (ages 12-13), Group A and interns (qualified 16-17 year olds), with about 15 in each group per instructor. Only interns are paid, and while Douglas Smith, Lifeguard II did not disclose specific wages, he stated that professional lifeguard incomes are typically dependent on the specialty teams the lifeguards work with (e.g. cliff instructor, dive team member, etc.). “You’re not gonna get rich doing it, but it’s an amazing life and it’s very fulfilling,” Smith opined. “And you’re gonna save more lives as a lifeguard than any other safety service job on the planet. That’s a fact.”

He estimated that more than 25 percent of Junior Lifeguards become permanent staff (at least nine current permanent staff members were formerly Junior Lifeguards), and at least 50 percent of Juniors will go on to be Seasonal Lifeguards.

This group learns how to strap on a harness for descending and ascending cliffs.
This group learns how to strap on a harness for descending and ascending cliffs.
(Savanah Duffy)

To be a Seasonal Guard, you must be able to swim 500 meters in under 10 minutes to qualify for an interview. If you pass the interview, you must then attend the two-week lifeguard training offered by Miramar College and the San Diego Regional Lifeguard Training Program.

A lifeguard can be highly skilled and well-trained, but Smith says the most common rookie mistake is complacency, resulting in lifeguards letting down their guard at “the exact wrong moment.” But lifeguarding requires being alert at all times, although Smith added that the general public may not always remember that.

“It’s the whole ‘Baywatch’ stigma,” Smith continued, addressing common misconceptions about lifeguarding. “(People think) we just hang out with our shirts off, hit on girls and just surf. There’s still that stigma that (lifeguarding) isn’t a real career path. (But) we’re professionals. We take the job seriously.”

Lifeguard responsibilities

The City website lists lifeguard responsibilities as: being the conduct for water rescues of swimmers, divers and surfers; coastal cliff rescues; boater rescues up to three miles off shore; medical aid; swift water and inland river rescues; scuba rescues and underwater search and recovery; marine firefighting; law enforcement of beach regulations through citation, arrest and impound of vessels; harbor patrol functions on Mission Bay and boating enforcement; and 24-hour staffing of the Lifeguard Communications Center, including dispatching incoming 9-1-1 calls, marine radio distress calls, fire and police referrals.

The “bread and butter” of being a lifeguard, as Smith calls it, is water observation and drowning prevention. According to him, a lot of people go home at the end of a day at the beach thanks to the lifeguards. Everything from issuing a warning (such as reminding people not to swim in surf-only areas) to lifeguards making a rescue is done to help beach-goers avoid tragedy or injury.

Smith encourages the Junior Lifeguards and other young, aspiring professional lifeguards, to pay no mind to the naysayers discrediting lifeguarding as a solid career path.

“We’re the unsung heroes,” he stated. “We know we don’t get the credit that a lot of other agencies get and that, honestly, doesn’t matter to us. We’re just here because we love the ocean and we love helping people.”

—Want to know more? Visit or e-mail or call (858) 581-7861 (during summer hours only).