If you successfully complete the Training Academy, you will be joining the world’s largest professional lifeguard service. The many lifeguards who have come before you, including many who are still working today, have made this possible. Our service has evolved through the years, and perhaps, with an understanding of the past, you can contribute to the growth and development of the Los Angeles County lifeguards.
Since pre-Civil War days, ocean lifeguarding had consisted of the Congressionally authorized U.S. Lifesaving Service (USLSS), the forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard. The USLSS, a federally funded professional service, was created to rescue imperiled crews and passengers of sailing ships along the Atlantic Coast, the Great Lakes, and the Pacific Northwest. Rescues utilized "Surfmen", rowing a five-man surfboat through the surf, and an elaborate system of ropes, rescue cars, buoys and harnesses which would be attached by lines between the rescue team on shore and the stricken vessel. Though the USLSS was not operating in Southern California, they had established a national model for ocean lifesaving.
Within the Santa Monica Bay, the period between 1900 and 1925 will be remembered as an era of volunteerism. Two main national organizations dominated the local scene; the U.S. Volunteer Lifesaving Corps (USVLSC), and the American Red Cross Lifesaving Corps. Headquartered on the old Venice Pier, and staffed with some of the most famous watermen of the day drawn from the plunges (pools) and bathhouses adjacent to these popular beaches, the USVLSC responded to rescues throughout the bay. The Red Cross Lifesaving Corps, founded in 1914, also provided organized volunteers along the same beaches as the USVLSC, and provided national standards for lifesaving and resuscitation training for other beach and plunge lifesavers.
During this period, the beaches of Los Angeles were populated by a growing number of year round residents. Shipping and commerce drew many to the coastal area; Santa Monica Bay was the port of entry for Los Angeles, and the Mile-Long Wharf off of Santa Monica Canyon and the piers off Redondo were the links between maritime commerce and the Southern Pacific Railroad.
The other chief attraction to the beaches were the numerous amusement and fishing piers being developed. Hotels, restaurants, ballrooms, plunges (swimming pools), including Abbott Kinney's Venice were all being constructed to draw the citizens of Los Angeles to the beaches of Santa Monica, Ocean Park, Venice, and Redondo. Land speculation and real estate sales were the motive of many of the entrepreneurs who subdivided the last remnants of the area's Spanish land grants.
The developed beaches became a mecca for tourists and Angelenos alike, and public transportation, via the Pacific Electric Railway ("Red Car") line, linked the populated inland cities with these coastal areas. Sleepy little beach towns like Manhattan and Hermosa, with resident populations numbering in the hundreds, witnessed these "Red Cars" transporting literally thousands of people to the beach on sunny weekends and holidays, seeking relief during the hot weather. These visitors patronized the great plunges and bathhouses, which had been constructed adjacent to popular beaches to combine the safety of calm water with the therapeutic benefits of salt water. Local businesses aggressively promoted water sports and aquatic recreation, and each plunge supported teams in swimming, diving and water polo. These rival teams fostered fierce competitions that eventually spilled over into the ocean. The various plunges prided themselves in having the best teams, lifeguards and instructors.
In 1908, two separate events took place on either side of the Palos Verdes Peninsula which would alter the evolution of lifeguarding for the next 20 years. On the southern side of the peninsula, the City of Long Beach hired its first professional lifeguard, Hinnie Zimmerman, who was stationed at Golden Ave. The following year, the Long Beach Police Dept. expanded the lifeguard Corps to include 10 men. This professional service predated any in the Santa Monica Bay by 17 years.
On the other side of the peninsula, in Redondo, entrepreneur Henry Huntington hired George Freeth as head swim instructor for the newly completed Redondo Plunge, the largest salt water plunge in the world. Only one year earlier, author Jack London had added to the legend of the Hawaiian-born Freeth by portraying him as the "Brown Mercury" for his surfing prowess at his native Diamond Head. While London described Freeth's skills in somewhat mythical proportions, he truly was, by all accounts, a prize catch for Huntington's new Redondo Plunge. Freeth quickly became savvy to the promotional aspects of his new job, and found himself dazzling the crowds assembled at the pier to witness the man who could "walk on water". Freeth's status in the community grew as he introduced and taught swimming, water polo, diving, spear fishing and surfing. Freeth also competed in many professional swimming events in Santa Monica Bay, but because of his professional status, Freeth was not permitted to participate in the Olympics. Freeth never received the acclaim given to his countryman, Olympic Champion Duke Kahanamoku, but the Duke credited Freeth as the best swimmer of their time. He was also a star water polo goalie, representing at various times the Redondo Plunge, the Venice Plunge and the LA Athletic Club. Freeth represented, and taught, the true skills of a "waterman"; an individual at harmony with the ocean, not fighting the sea, but going with it and using its energy to handle the riptides and surf with confidence. Many of his young protegees went on to be come the lifeguards and aquatic stars of the future.
As a Captain of the United States Volunteer Lifesaving Corps of Venice, George Freeth was responsible for what many consider the greatest rescue in our history. For over two and a half hours Freeth repeatedly swam through gale force winds and up to fifteen foot surf to rescue seven Japanese Fisherman who had been thrown out of three separate overturned fishing boats. Despite severe hypothermia he continually returned to save each person in distress. For this December 16, 1908 rescue, he received the nation’s highest honor that can be bestowed on a civilian, the Congressional Gold Medal. By a special act of Congress he was awarded this honor, an honor that has only been bestowed on approximately 250 Americans since 1883.
The USVLSC was a success, and in 1914 adopted the doctrines of the newly formed Red Cross Life Saving Corps. The Corps was now present at Santa Monica, Ocean Park, Venice, Hermosa and Redondo.
The Roaring Twenties brought about much change and expansion in Los Angeles. Locally, the trend continued toward city municipalities assuming responsibility for providing their own lifeguards. Most of these early lifeguard services adopted a para military structure, and many expanded to year round operations. Motorized beach vehicles, telephone communications, and resuscitators were introduced, while rescue paddleboards became easier to manage as the solid boards were replaced with newer hollow boards. Rescue cans were also introduced, though they were quite primitive by today's standards, being over three feet in length and made of heavy galvanized metal.
This period saw further erosion of Victorian morals, as prohibition brought out the bootleggers, speakeasies, and nightclubs, which provided gambling and entertainment. Hollywood and the film industry grew and became famous, and Southern California developed its own identity, as the trend toward the casual became highly publicized and very popular. Lifeguards were on the cutting edge of this change, and their lifestyle, as well as their early image as the "Bronze Savage," were widely exploited and copied.
The cast of characters within the lifeguard services was quite unique, and many interacted with the Hollywood film industry. From Venice to Santa Monica Canyon, the beach became home to the Chaplins, Davies, Flynns and Rogers of the day. As in the previous decade, the unique skills necessary for ocean rescue work were a source of entertainment and amusement. One particular publicity stunt consisted of Charlie Chaplin refereeing a wrestling match between lifeguards at Venice Beach.
When Venice became part of the City of Los Angeles, the Venice and Ocean Park lifeguards were organized. George Wolf, who had run the Venice lifeguards as a policeman stationed at the Venice Plunge, passed the baton of leadership to Myron Cox, Los Angeles City's first and longest reigning chief.
Widespread unemployment characterized the Great Depression, and many victims of the Dust Bowl, failed farms, and bankrupt industries, migrated west in hopes of finding jobs and making new lives. Lifeguards fared relatively well under the circumstances, as government jobs were coveted, and demand for services increased.
In the 1930's, local lifeguards and lifeguard services under-went a structural reorganization. At the request of Hermosa Beach's Mayor Logan Cotton, Los Angeles County took over the Hermosa Beach City Lifeguards, as a cost-saving measure to the City of Hermosa. Tubby Coleman was brought in from the City of Long Beach to supervise the transition and to expand the County's responsibilities to include Santa Monica Canyon. Redondo Beach and Manhattan City Beach quickly followed suit and joined the County lifeguard service. As the County's responsibilities grew, so did its lifeguard crew, many of whom had previously worked in the various city operations.
Rusty Williams emerged as the County's leader during this era of increased professionalism, which saw the introduction of formalized training and public education programs. Four-wheel-drive vehicles, motorized rescue craft, and mobile communications were also introduced during this period. Many of our present operational procedures were initiated at this time. Year-round, 24-hour services were implemented. The first underwater recovery unit (dive team) was developed, public education and junior lifeguard programs were expanded and formalized. The lifeguards' first aid skills and equipment were unsurpassed in the public sector. In local beach towns lifeguards responded to inland calls, much as today's paramedics do, treating everything from emergency childbirth to heart attacks. The local emergency hospital even relied on the Hermosa call car for the use of its modern resuscitator.
Lifeguard demonstrations and competitions were developed to showcase the lifeguard's surf knowledge and skill. The first night competitions under lights were held, adjacent to the Hermosa pier. These lifeguard relays became "The Taplin," named after Judge Irving Taplin, who donated a beautiful, three-tiered, brass bell trophy to the winners. Agencies from up and down the coast would send their sixteen best watermen to "have-at-it!" Lifeguard services annually challenged one another to determine who was the "King of the Surf." The teams to be reckoned with were Los Angeles City, led by Myron Cox, Los Angeles County, led by Rusty Williams, Santa Monica, led by George "Cap" Watkins, and Long Beach, led by Dutch Miller. Surf competitions not only demonstrated the lifeguards' skills, they also motivated lifeguards to develop and improve their skills. Ocean swims, paddleboard and dory races took place throughout the area.
Lifeguard skills, developed in the thirties for competition and entertainment, were of great service to the nation during World War II. The Overseas Secret Services (O.S.S.) relied on these watermen to form the nucleus of the Underwater Demolition Team (U.D.T.). Some worked with the Navy to "waterproof" the raw recruits, while others helped develop a basic floating and swimming survival technique. Many guards served throughout World War II in the Navy and Merchant Marine Corps. The present Taplin bell came from future Chief Bud Stevenson's wartime merchant ship, the S.S. F. H. Hillman, after it was decommissioned.
Back home, local beaches were restricted, an were used as military encampments to prepare for possible Japanese invasion. Many young men, not old enough to serve in the Armed Forces, were whipped into shape and trained as lifeguards by the few older guards who remained to manage the lifeguard service.
Following World War II, the population of Los Angeles rapidly increased. The "Baby Boom" was underway, and beach activities became increasingly popular. Rather than commute to the beach by train, many people moved to the burgeoning seaside communities. Lifeguard skills continued to develop and evolve to meet the needs of these growing communities. Various cities and chambers of commerce organized ocean and beach activities, highlighting the lifeguard competitions and demonstrations.
Improvements were also seen as the technologies of war were adapted to improving lifesaving equipment. Lightweight metals were utilized to produce a safer and easier to use rescue can, fiberglass and plastics technology allowed for construction of lighter, faster, and easier to handle rescue boats and rescue boards, and war time medical experiences led to improvements in first aid procedures and equipment. The Los Angeles County lifeguards were instrumental in the design and development of the first certified SCUBA safety program in the United States, as well as the formulation of the first SCUBA diving training manual.
Local lifeguard services were administered by the Departments of Parks and Recreation of either Los Angeles County, Los Angeles City, Santa Monica, or Long Beach. The pre war images of lifeguards, perpetuated by Hollywood, were tough to overcome, and the professionalism of ocean lifesaving became an important concern to management, as the "beach boy" image of the past was to be strictly avoided. Bud Stevenson, Los Angeles County's new Chief lifeguard, led the way in bringing our lifeguarding standards and image to its present day status by developing rigorous, standardized, and comprehensive training programs.
In 1956, following an invitation from the Australian Surf Lifesaving Association, Los Angeles County lifeguards organized and sent a team representing the United States to the first International Surf Life Saving Competition, held in conjunction with the Melbourne Olympics. This singular event is recognized as the most influential surf lifesaving carnival ever held. The international surf lifesaving community was introduced to the rescue can, lightweight paddleboards, fiberglass surf boards, relays and iron man competition, as well as to the overall capabilities of the modern, well trained, professional lifeguard. This international forum continues today, providing a constant exchange of information, equipment, and skills.
In 1957, Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) was first introduced to the Los Angeles County lifeguard Program by Captain Dwight Crum.
The 1960's saw a continued increase in beach attendance, as the "Baby Boom" kids discovered surfing, and sought to mimic the lifestyle of local surf heroes. Junior lifeguard and public education programs were expanded to meet these growing needs, and the strong aquatic background and competition among these youths provided a wellspring of future lifeguarding talent.
Chief Stevenson's continued leadership of the Los Angeles County lifeguards brought further gains to the profession. There was tremendous support for the County lifeguards as the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved parity with the Fire and Sheriff's Departments for lifeguards in salary and benefits, Lifeguards were also able to attain Safety Series retirement.
The ever increasing needs and demands of local beach communities taxed the resources of County lifeguards, which were administered by the downtown offices of the Department of Parks and Recreation On May 1, 1969, the Board of Supervisors, under the leadership of Burton Chace, formed the Department of Beaches in order to better serve the public, and to address the unique needs of the County's valuable coastal resources. Richard Fitzgerald was the new Department's first Director.
The late Sixties and early Seventies were significant for the many organizational and professional improvements to ocean lifesaving, as well as the increased accessibility to improved facilities at County beaches. Under the Directorship of Richard "Fitz" Fitzgerald, Assistant Director Bud Stevenson, and Deputy Director Dwight Crum, the Department of Beaches was responsible for opening up many public beaches which had previously been off limits due to their proximity to private property. Public accessways were purchased and opened for public use, and the renowned South Bay Bicycle Path was conceived and constructed. County lifeguards became responsible for guarding an increased number of beaches, as other municipalities looked to the County of Los Angeles for their high level of service. One of these was the City of Avalon, on Catalina Island, where the first Baywatch crew was assigned and stationed, in 1970.
Bob Burnside became the Chief lifeguard in 1972. A founding member of the Surf Lifesaving Association, Chief Burnside pushed for professionalism and respect for lifeguarding with the introduction and recognition of important credentials such as rescue boat skipper licensing and EMT certification.
While the Los Angeles and Santa Monica City lifeguard Services were steeped in traditions often predating Los Angeles County's, their respective Chiefs had long considered, in light of their common mission and close proximity of jurisdictions, the potential benefits of one unified service.
In 1974, Santa Monica City contracted with Los Angeles County to provide lifeguard services, and their staff and facilities were merged accordingly. The following year, Los Angeles City followed by also contracting with Los Angeles County. All former City lifeguards were able to take advantage of the County's higher salaries and Safety Retirement. The Assistant Chief position was created and filled by Los Angeles City's former Chief, Bill O'Sullivan, who served with County Chief Howard Lee as this new era began. All three services were now working together, lifeguarding from Leo Carrillo to Catalina to Cabrillo beach. Because of its size, the service was organized into four sections: Northern, Central, Southern, and the Rescue Boats. With these mergers, Los Angeles County became the world’s largest professional lifeguard service.
Paramedic services were initiated in the mid Seventies due to the relative isolation of some lifeguarded areas. Due to increasing sport and commercial diving around Catalina, paramedics were established to handle the island and surrounding waters. Paramedics were also assigned to Zuma, where they responded to emergencies from Malibu to the northern Los Angeles County line.
The lifeguards' areas of training and responsibility had come a long way. Operations expanded to previously unimaginable proportions, and the statistics graphically portrayed the lifeguard's growing role in County wide public safety. Annual beach attendance topped 60 million, rescues 8,000, preventions 130,000, boat rescues 2,000, and medical aids 10,000. Los Angeles County's beaches had become the most heavily used year round beaches in the world. The many municipalities within the County of Los Angeles began providing police beach patrols, which greatly aided the lifeguard in handling law enforcement problems. The growing problems of alcohol and drug related drownings were addressed, and a close working relationship between lifeguards and law enforcement was established. These same cities' fire departments began providing paramedics capable of working alongside the lifeguard call car. Together they offer a high level of patient care from the beach to the emergency room.
With the passage of the Proposition 13 tax initiative in 1978, it became more difficult for the Department to continue its growth and successes of the past. Los Angeles County government took a different course as funds became scarce. No new beaches could be acquired, recreational programs could not be provided, public educational programs were not budgeted, and budget freezes were common. In 1979, Fitzgerald retired, and Jerry Cunningham took over as the Department's Director. The Junior Lifeguard Program was restructured as a self supporting program, and every aspect of the Department of Beaches was examined and justified by asking the question, "Is it essential to the public's safety?"
The Eighties saw the County continuing to trim. In 1982, the Board of Supervisors merged the Department of Beaches and the Department of Small Craft Harbors into the Department of Beaches and Harbors, to more effectively fund and coordinate our shoreline services. Lifeguard administration was reorganized, and Bob Williams emerged as Chief lifeguard, with Howard Lee as Assistant Chief. The first Director of Beaches and Harbors was Victor Adorian, the former Director of Small Craft Harbors. Again, every aspect of ocean lifeguarding was re-evaluated and re-justified. Lifeguard management emerged from this transition much more accountable for its operation.
The new administration was challenged to render self supporting beach operations, and management skills, required to effectively interact with the Chief Administrative Officer of Los Angeles County, were acquired and implemented. County managed properties were leased out to the private sector, and certain Departmental functions were bid out to private contractors. Cost effectiveness and efficiency dictated all lifeguard operations. As part of this, the lifeguard paramedics in the Northern Section were absorbed into the Los Angeles County Fire Department. As the County's operating agreements with the various contracting cities came up for renegotiation, the Leo Carrillo operation was returned to the State of California, while Los Angeles and the South Bay Cities reached agreements to continue with the County.
Ted Reed was appointed as the Department's new Director on April 1, 1986. He brought leadership and an effectiveness in coordinating the Department's needs and activities with the rest of the County's operations. He was also able to obtain badly needed funding for training within the lifeguard Division. In April, 1987, Chief Bob Williams retired, and Howard Lee once again assumed the Chief's position.
The eighties were a decade of rebuilding for Los Angeles County Lifeguard Service. In cooperation with several government entities Grant money was obtained for the construction of new facilities, new portable towers, the installation of new communication equipment, and launching of several new rescue boats. In addition, creative private sponsorships provided for new 4 X 4 rescue trucks at no cost to taxpayers. Private sponsors also aided in promoting lifeguard competition.
On April 1, 1990, leadership of the Los Angeles County lifeguards passed to Don Rohrer who became Chief lifeguard. Chief Rohrer took the reins of a Division under budgetary attack from a County facing record budget deficits. Faced with the challenge to continue providing the highest level of lifeguard professionalism, and do it for less money, Chief Rohrer energized the Lifeguard Division with a can-do spirit that was to serve the Division well in tough times. Chief Rohrer surrounded himself with a creative and innovative team in the division headquarters and the results were extraordinary. Training programs were expanded to include EMT-D certification, Swiftwater certification, and emergency driving instruction. Public education was also given a new emphasis with the knowledge that in addition to educating people about the beach environment, projecting a positive image out into the community would be of great benefit to the Department. Here is a brief overview of the strides made by our Division since Chief Rohrer took over.
The 90's has been the decade that has seen the Department enter the computer age. With budgets under constant scrutiny, the mandate throughout the first half of the decade was to find ways to accomplish more with less. As a result, the Lifeguard Division has become more efficient. Efficiency was increased through the use of state-of-the-art technology.
A major step in streamlining operations within the Division was the Lifeguard Division Local Area Network computer system. First installed at Division Headquarters in July of 1991, the system was expanded in July of 1992 to all three Sectional Headquarters. The system allows remote access from the Headquarters, providing for quick and accurate transfer of information such as time keeping, scheduling, and major incident reports.
Another system that was updated is the telephone system. The old Manual Cord PBX switchboard system was replaced in 1990 with an Automatic Digital PBX system. The new system allows for quicker, more accurate telephone communications both within the system and from outside sources.
A unified system of user-maintainable equipment is being installed throughout the Lifeguard Division. Already installed in the Dockweiler and Venice areas, the new equipment will enable lifeguards to maintain and adapt the system without telephone company intervention.
Another advanced system that is up and running is the 911 emergency dispatch system. The genesis of this system dates to April 20, 1987 when the State invited the Los Angeles County Lifeguards to integrate into the 911 system. Since February 1988, the system has been up and running, with 911 hardware located at each of the sectional headquarters. The system has been updated several times, and the third generation of equipment is now on-line.
In 1992 Semi-Automatic Defibrillator units became standard equipment on all call-car and rescue boat units. All SOL's have been upgraded to EMT-D status, as have a number of recurrent lifeguards.
The rescue boat fleet is another area of the Division that has seen great improvement. All the boats have been upgraded to twin 300 horsepower diesel engines. Four of the boats, Cabrillo, Del Rey, Catalina, and Redondo, as well as the auxiliary boat are outfitted with full fire fighting apparatus.
On July 1, 1994, by order of the Board of Supervisors, the lifeguard Division was removed from the Department of Beaches and Harbors and merged into the County of Los Angeles Fire Department. Issues being addressed since the merger are long-term funding of lifeguard operations and gaining title to the State beaches within the County of Los Angeles. The ultimate authority for all operations of the lifeguard Division is now the Fire Chief, P. Michael Freeman.
In 1996, Chief Don Rohrer retired from lifeguarding, and Assistant Chief Randy Degregori became Acting Chief. Challenges have continued to confront the Lifeguard Division, but the unwavering support of the Fire Chief has allowed Chief Degregori the flexibility to manage the division and grow.
In 1998, the Lifeguard Division was placed under the direction of the Special Operations Bureau,
Acting Chief Degregori was promoted to Chief, and Captain Russ Walker was promoted to Assistant Chief. Other changes included renaming the title of Section Captain to Section Chief, Lieutenant to Captain, and Senior Ocean Lifeguard to Ocean Lifeguard Specialist.
The positive economic climate of the late 1990’s continued into the new century. The Lifeguard Division expanded its high level of service to include a 24-hour operations captain and 24-hour rescue boat operations pilot programs. The addition of the rescue boat and beach captain to the night crew decreased the response time on night calls and increased the level of supervision.
The Automatic External Defibrillator (AED) became standard equipment on all lifeguard units. Training increased to include ICS, rescue systems, and rescue boat deckhand. A new lifeguard tower was designed and a prototype built as part of a program to replace all 158 towers.
2001 brought many changes to the Lifeguard Division. Chief DeGregori retired and Section Chief Mike Frazer became Chief Lifeguard. The Lifeguard Division was reorganized to facilitate the establishment of a Rescue Boat Section, 24- hour Rescue Boat Operations, Section Chief Relief, and expansion of 24-hour supervision. The 6 OLS positions, 2 Rescue Boat Captain positions, and 1 Beach Captain position were added to the permanent staff.
Through a cooperative partnership with the Department of Beaches and Harbors, the Rescue Boat Section received an Operations Office. The 47’ Executive Houseboat serves as the Rescue Boat Section Base and Baywatch Del Rey’s 24-hour station. The delivery of the houseboat completed a project that was years in the making and involved numerous County Departments and Fire Department Divisions.
Los Angeles County became the first lifeguard agency in the world to have every lifeguard AED trained. The Junior Lifeguard Program increased to over 2400 participants, almost 300 more than 2000. The LA County Lifeguards continued to dominate the competition arena by winning the United States Lifesaving Association Nationals for the 16th consecutive year.
Due to the terrorism on September 11th, the US Coast Guard asked that the LA County Lifeguards operate Baywatch Cabrillo on a 24 hour basis. The boat was based at the Coast Guard station and was responsible for search and rescue missions while the Coast Guard was handling port security. Months later, the Coast Guard allowed the Baywatch Cabrillo operation to move permanently onto the base. Due to our continued excellent working relationship with the Coast Guard, we are the only outside agency allowed to establish a base of operations on a Coast Guard base in the entire United States.
Our profession has had a long and colorful history, and its evolution is the result of many dedicated individuals. The common humanitarian experience, which binds all lifeguards, is the personal satisfaction one receives from saving a life. Whether your lifeguard experience is brief, or lasts a lifetime, you will always view a body of water with the eyes of a lifeguard. As the saying goes, "Once a lifeguard, always a lifeguard." Los Angeles County lifeguards share a common pride in being the world's finest. Each lifeguard is responsible for how we are all perceived. Our professional image is every lifeguard's legacy. Be proud. We are the best.