For many beach-goers, lifeguards only exist inside the tiny towers that dot the beach and in their memories of Baywatch episodes.
So what lifeguards (or ocean rescuers) actually do isn't widely understood.
Here are five misconceptions about lifeguards for you below:
1. This is a summer job for college kids.
Being an ocean-rescue lifeguard is a year-round career, much like being a firefighter or a cop. The vast majority of beach lifeguards have been in their positions for several years, some for decades. In Miami Beach and other places in South Florida, Ocean Rescue is a division of the Fire Department.
2. Lifeguards just want to sit around on the beach.
Last fiscal year, they guarded millions of beach visitors 365 days of the year, rescued 733 victims, and performed 273,543 preventative rescues. Guards are constantly scanning the water and beach for problems and work to ward off any potential issue before it becomes dangerous.
3. It is easy to become a lifeguard.
The process is very rigorous; hundreds apply for only a handful of openings each year.
The general minimum requirements are as follows:
- The ability to swim 500 meters in less than 10 minutes.
- Doing a five-minute rescue: running 100 meters on the beach with equipment, swimming out to a “victim” return and attend to any medical needs.
- Being trained in CPR and first-aid.
- Getting certified in automated external defibrillators (AED).
Erick Guzman, an Ocean Rescue guard in Hallandale Beach, is a former U.S. Navy Rescue Swimmer.
“This was the closest job to what I was doing in the military,” he says. Ocean rescue is “shore to water. That was aircraft [to water], but you’re saving lives at the end of the day.”
4. Lifeguards are just out there to get a tan.
Skin cancer is a big danger for lifeguards, many of whom spend days on end under the sun. Chuck Ellis has been a guard on Miami Beach for 26 years.
“We’re so conscious about skin protection, that's the last thing anybody even talks about,” says Ellis. He wore a thick, dark blue long sleeve Ocean Rescue shirt.
5. Lifeguards are worried about sharks.
Sharks are statistically not a big danger (lightning causes more deaths in Florida than any other state).
“It’s tough getting people off the beach,” says veteran Ocean Rescuer Chuck Ellis. “Thanks to Steven Spielberg and his great movie, now everybody is scared of [sharks] more than they are of things that can really injure them when they’re outside.”
This story was originally published on July 3, 2014.