Updated: May 29, 2019
Drowning remains the third leading cause of unintentional injury related deaths accounting for 9% of total global mortality according to the World Health Organization. In the United States it is the #1 cause of injury and death in children 1 – 4 years of age and you remain the difference between life and death.
Over the past 5 years, according to national statistics, beach visitation attendance has increased 12.49%; aquatic rescues have increased 37%; preventative contacts 28% and medical aids more than 66% nationwide. Job Security…
And yet, the role of the professional lifeguard and marine safety officer has changed little since the early 1900’s when George Freeth was employed by Henry Huntington. Hired for his waterman skills, it was quickly realized Freeth was a resource for the community coordinating the first Youth Lifeguard program in response to drownings and as a way to recruit others to be vigilant over coastal waters and visitors. He designed and constructed the first lifeguard response vehicle, the first rescue towline and paved the way for a myriad of skilled watermen and waterwoman who have continually lived and breathed life into our profession.
I have spent more than half of my life as a lifeguard and as a mentor and supervisor of today’s leaders. And when you dive into our profession you realize the job develops the skills required to be a true leader, both in the public safety arena, and far into today’s corporate world.
Lifeguards are prepared. You train, arrive early to towers and organize your equipment daily. You prepare for the mental and physical battles of the day, as well as, the worst case scenarios. Let’s face it. There are few professions which have policies pertaining to mass casualty events, shark bites, and drowning response plans.
Lifeguards are visible. The public, elected officials, and those who accept your assistance see you. They know you and you nurture positive relationships in the here and now and into our future. With every positive interaction you are engrained and labeled a professional and someone who should be followed.
Lifeguards are color blind. A life in peril is simply a life. There is no concern for race, sex, religion, or other label. A life in need of saving is saved. There is no black or white. It simply a call to duty to save humanity. Our ranks should mirror the ever changing diversity of our society so we may remain relevant, but more importantly so that we may continue to better ourselves by understanding others.
Lifeguards are aware of their surroundings. Constantly scanning; ever vigilant; never distracted. You must know what is working within your organization and what needs to be mended. More often times than not, you are the visionary and “fresh” breath of your city, county, or state. You create training and policy for the insane and unimaginable. You understand the importance of continuing education for both you and those you lead. You develop plans and set goals. You improve yourself as you improve your teams.
The Lifeguard is poised for high risk situations. Bravery is simply an attitude.
With all of the above, the lifeguard develops traits and processes to handle any hurdle with calmness and the appearance of ease. The Lifeguard is able to decide and act.
As I stated earlier, the role of lifeguards and marine safety personnel has changed little since the early ages of aquatic rescue. Whether it was improving row boats or oars to propel layperson rescuers to a sinking ship in the 1800’s, improving the idea of a longboard into a rescue device. Whether Peterson or Burnside creating the buoys we utilize today, or the introduction of placing seaworthy vessels into a surfline to effect heroic acts it demonstrates leadership and vision. This profession has always problem solved. You are the consummate observers, the thinkers, and the experts at improvisation and innovation.
Your environment requires you to be quick on your feet. To take in all information and find solutions to immediate problems in an ever changing world.
Today, now more than ever, it will be your offices which municipalities, counties, elected officials and tourism boards will look to for insight and guidance.
You must realize you are the agent of change and you must be as agile and as thoughtful as those who shaped our path. You must embrace technology and science just as those who utilized new found fiberglass, rubber, and foam materials after World War II to construct and hone the necessary tools of our profession today. You must continually improve the tools of which you have been handed.
The use of UAS (drones), new camera systems which can decipher humans from other objects, improved communications, CAD systems, and other technologies which provide valuable insights into how the public interacts with our environment will provide the data science needs to maintain the health of public and our coastlines needs to be vetted and used by lifeguards. We need to be the collectors, as well as, the analysts of this data.
We must be the drivers of policy and training. Whether it be the latest shark incident response guidelines developed by the CA Marine Safety Chiefs Association in conjunction with Cal State Long Beach SharkLabs, instituting new and innovative equipment and vehicles into the public safety arena, or updates to the latest field medical treatments, it is this profession which needs to have a voice in any discussions concerning water life safety.
Make no mistake. You will be the authors of updates and policies which develop guidelines of how to react to any future issues regardless of the problem; sea level rise, coastal erosion, drought or no drought, marine protection, aquatic safety, and agendas you never imagined, such as homelessness, drug and alcohol dependency, solving an obesity crisis, or how to affect positive change in recreational access.
Lifeguarding, and public recreation management in general, requires human interaction. In a world of artificial intelligence, computers which can print almost anything and robots who now make pizza, we remain an industry which requires those who are blessed with not only physical skills, but also those who understand the need for personal connections, to demonstrate compassion and understanding no matter how many times you have to move that person out of the rip current or your vehicle access.
Whether educating the unsuspecting regarding rip currents, deciphering the difference between gull and cormorant, or providing interpretation about soil substrates and why nature provided cobble and rocks and we did not take away their sand; you are the immediate and personal contact between them and the world of water.
You represent our past leaders and will shape our futures. You must remain the inventors, the innovators, and the dabblers in the unrealistic to maintain our movement.
Today’s Lifeguard leaders seek true public safety professional status, parity in pay, and a true understanding of our profession. You are the leaders regardless of rank or stature. You… are now them. Utilize the talents and innate traits of our calling to scratch, paddle and catch the next wave. Take today’s information and discussions to forge a path our forefathers would follow.
Our profession is brave and courageous. This behavior is engrained and not easily gained. Believe in yourself and your programs will follow.
Brian Ketterer is a 32 year veteran of ocean lifeguarding and has worked as a Senior Lifeguard for the Encinitas Marine Safety Division and an active member of the ELA. Visit Brian Ketterer on Facebook.