Lifeguarding at Ocean Beach: A job of great responsibility and rewards
New London — With this summer’s release of the film “Baywatch,” based on the 1990s action drama series about Los Angeles County lifeguards, Nicholas Davidson had this advice for his crew at Ocean Beach Park.
“Don’t take notes. That’s not real life,” said Davidson, the 24-year-old safety aquatics director at the city’s 50-acre park that includes a half-mile-long beach on Long Island Sound and an Olympic-size freshwater swimming pool.
On a sunny summer day, thousands of people crowd onto the beach and in and around the pool.
While “Baywatch” may romanticize the job of a lifeguard, Davidson’s 30-member force knows firsthand that it is exacting work that carries a huge amount of responsibility.
“It is typical that there are rescues almost every day, and each guard probably does a couple dozen rescues in a season,” Davidson said.
On a recent sunny weekday, lifeguard supervisor Mikayla Ellis went into the pool when she saw a boy jump into the deep end and panic.
“I could see he was nervous. His arms went up,” she said, explaining that the park’s lifeguard force is proactive and responds at the first sign of a distressed swimmer.
Jeff Ellis & Associates, an international aquatic safety and risk management consulting firm focused on the prevention and elimination of drowning, train and certify the Ocean Beach Park lifeguards.
Davidson said the mantra, “If you don’t know, go,” is drilled into the minds of his staff and they all understand, “Don’t be afraid to jump in. If you jump in and it’s nothing, no big deal.”
They call these incidents GIDs, guests in distress, and at the first hint of a struggle, the lifeguards are making a rescue.
“It’s not like the movies, where people are thrashing and screaming,” Davidson said. “They will smack the top of the water a couple of times, go stiff, and start sinking. And we catch it right when it happens.”
In addition to training and certifying the park’s lifeguards, three times each season Jeff Ellis' staff make unannounced visits to observe, videotape and then critique the Ocean Beach lifeguards’ work.
“They want to make sure we are actually scanning, not fixated, and that (lifeguards) are shifting position every five minutes,” Davidson said.
“A lifeguard should always be moving and scanning,” he said.
Challenging but rewarding
At Ocean Beach, five lifeguard towers stand on the expansive beach, as well as four in the swimming pool and one in the splash park for toddlers. Additional lifeguard supervisors also are patrolling, and the guards rotate towers about every 30 minutes. When it’s time to rotate, another guard stands watch to make sure a post is never unattended.
In the pool, which goes from 4 to 13 feet deep, lifeguards are “scanning” three depths — the surface, a mid-point in the water, and the bottom — always making sure no one is in jeopardy. Non-swimmers tend to stay in the shallow end, but sometimes a visitor may jump in the deep end, not realizing how far away the bottom is.
The lifeguards, who all secure rescue tubes to their neck and shoulder, agreed that’s where most of the saves are made.
On the beach, guards scan the top of the water, since Long Island Sound is too murky to see beneath the surface. Buoys designate preferred swimming areas in front of each tower, but it’s up to the lifeguard on duty to determine if a swimmer is strong enough to advance beyond the guidelines.
A single long blast on a lifeguard’s whistle means he or she is going in, and someone else needs to cover their territory. Two long blasts means a guard needs assistance. The short whistles are to stop horseplay or running, or get the attention of a swimmer.
Davidson grew up in Old Lyme, graduated from Central Connecticut State University and is pursuing a master’s degree in education there. He’s been an Ocean Beach lifeguard for six years and said it is a good job that trains young people for future careers.
“It’s hard work, but rewarding,” he said. “It’s very challenging.”
On busy days like the Fourth of July holiday, Davidson said 600 people or more will be cooling off in the swimming pool, and so many visitors are enjoying the beach that lifeguards have to walk across blankets to get from one tower to the next when they rotate.
And regardless of the crowd size, Davidson said his crew is out whatever the weather.
“That exposure, especially being out in the sun all day, can be fatiguing,” he said, and added that the park’s lifeguards are provided sunscreen and encouraged to use it.
Guards form a bond
For New London resident Michael Shapiro, who served under then lifeguard captain and now city Mayor Michael Passero, it’s a different job for today’s Ocean Beach Park lifeguards.
“The big difference is that in my day, people swam. People knew how to swim. Today, people do not know how to swim. They are in the water wading, they’re not really swimming,” he said.
Shapiro reminisced about the men and women who were fellow lifeguards in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and the friendships they formed and the Ocean Beach stories they still share when they see one another today.
He recalled the pool shows that the lifeguards performed, including diving, clowns and water ballet, and the huge crowds that they attracted. And he spoke of the “characters” who were beach regulars in those days.
Today, Davidson spoke of the bonds that his lifeguards have formed and the closeness of his crew.
“We are a big family here, we’re a tight-knit family,” he said.
Lifeguard Kiely Smith, 20, a city resident and senior at Eastern Connecticut State University, said even on her days off she visits the other lifeguards.
“I just love it. I enjoy being at the beach and I enjoy coming to work every single day,” she said. “And the sunsets, they’re beautiful.”
Dave Sugrue, the Ocean Beach Park manager, said he is extremely proud of the park’s lifeguards and that year after year they win awards based on the measurable criteria and standards within the Jeff Ellis model.
“For many of them, at a young age they have more responsibility now than they will have for the rest of their lives, which they handle professionally and skillfully,” he said.
Mikayla Ellis, a 19-year-old Waterford resident who is attending Johnson State College in Vermont, is in her fourth year as a park lifeguard. Talking about her pool rescue earlier in the day, she explained that the boy she went in to assist was embarrassed in front of his friends, but clearly was in distress.
“We are always looking for people who don’t know how to swim, and it is very scary,” she said. “But it is how we are trained. It’s all about prevention.”
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