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Lifeguards in hot water

Guardians of Newport's beaches battle public misconceptions about their profession amidst debate about their compensation and pensions.

June 10, 2011|By Mike Reicher, mike.reicher@latimes.com

For the next fiscal year, Huntington officials are also asking the guards union to consider a lower pension formula for new-hires, says Mike Beuerlein, a Huntington lifeguard supervisor and president of the California Surf Lifesaving Assn.

"I think that will be the trend up and down the coast," he says.

Kyle Lindo, Huntington's marine safety chief, says during his 25 years in the department he has seen lifeguards' budgets cut during tight times.

"It's almost as if it's the low-hanging fruit," he says.

Training, not tanning

Part of what makes them vulnerable, guards say, is that politicians don't fully understand their responsibilities or qualifications.

Year-round guards in Newport must have emergency medical technician certification, as do firefighters — an example, managers say, of the training that sets them apart from seasonal ocean lifeguards or pool or lake guards.

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Newport's guards are part of the city's Fire Department, and they receive much of the same training. They undergo Federal Emergency Management Agency courses so they can coordinate with other agencies during major emergencies.

"I don't think people realize how trained we are," says Newport Battalion Chief Rob Williams.

Some permanent guards can fight marine fires, and scuba dive on search-and-recovery operations.

Even with the guards' experience and training, it's hard for many to understand why these supervisors should be so well-compensated. Most people picture guards sitting on towers, surrounded by beautiful people, driving Jeeps on the sand, and occasionally running into the water for a rescue.

Williams bristles at the perception of hot babes and suntans. Most of their work goes unseen, he says.

"We're always educating people about the hazards and conditions of the ocean — and what our profession is," he says. "We try to educate and prevent things before they happen … response is the last thing we do."

Part of law enforcement

Williams also oversees the city's popular summer youth Junior Lifeguard program, as do full-time guard supervisors in other beach towns. He's one of two battalion chiefs who manage the department's full-time guards and nearly 200 seasonal employees.

In 2010, the Newport battalion chiefs made between $143,000 and $149,000, including overtime and special pay given for additional duties and designations.

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