LONG BRANCH, N.J. (AP) - Perched atop the tall white stands, lifeguards may look like their only worry is how much sun they’ll get this afternoon.
But like a sports car, they’ll go from zero to 60 in seconds, racing into the ocean to pluck a life out of the rough surf or a rip current. Last year, it was 525 lives saved in Long Branch to be exact.
“I think most people have a stereotype of lifeguards getting a tan and hanging out at the beach. Not really performing much of a public service,” Gene Hession, lifeguard training officer for Long Branch, told the Asbury Park Press (https://on.app.com/1LFnvYQ ). He’s also the president of the Monmouth County chapter of the U.S. Lifesaving Association.
“But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Hession showed me the ins and outs behind protecting the millions of people who flock to the 141-miles of Jersey Shore this summer.
He estimated the lifeguards who work at the Morris Avenue station would make at least 100 rescues this summer. Statistics from the U.S. Lifesaving Association, the national organization for beach lifeguards and open water rescuers, shows 2,694 rescues last year along New Jersey’s shoreline.
Those who fill the ranks of lifeguards include many local surfers and high school and college athletes, including several Division I swimmers, said Hession, who himself starts his morning at 6:30 a.m. with an ocean row followed by lifting weights and a 1,000 yard ocean swim.
My initial plan was to join the lifeguards for their routine. I run. I workout. I can do this!
Hession seemed a bit uncertain when I first mentioned it in an earlier conversation. I soon saw why.
The crowd of suntanned and chiseled Adonises took turns dashing into the waves, either in rowboats, kayaks or custom-made boards, and paddled or rowed to a buoy about 100 yards into the ocean, where they turned around and headed back to shore.
Once on land, the next guard took off, repeating the routine at lightning speed over and over and over again. For an hour.
I was ready for a nap just watching. These lifeguards were just starting their 8-hour shift.
They were training for the relay races in upcoming competitions where lifeguards show off their professional prowess. But these skills are the same ones the lifeguards will use all summer in actual rescues.
“It builds morale, strength, stamina and speed,” Hession said. “What better way to practice than this?”
“They realize how important physical fitness is to the job,” he said. “That’s your job: to be physically fit. There’s no warm up for a rescue; you just have to go.”
USLA standards require lifeguards reach victims within 2 minutes.
“Anything more is problematic,” he said.
The basic requirement to be hired as an ocean lifeguard is a 500-meter - a third of a mile - swim test that must be completed in under 10 minutes. Many of the current lifeguards will learn much of their skills on the job, Hession said.
Long Branch used to do that over the course of a summer. But two years ago, the city revamped its training, putting their new lifeguards in an intensive, 40-hour Rookie Academy.
And none of it is a day at the beach. The first thing they get is a copy of the 360-page USLA training manual, which details every possible way to save a person in water, from basic rope rescues to cliff rescues. The rookie guards get reading assignments as homework, which they’ll be quizzed on in class.
Lifeguards will spend about half of the weeklong training on the beach practicing drills. The other half is spent in a classroom where they learn CPR, study about blood-borne pathogens and watch videos that show real-life examples of what a person goes through as they are drowning.
At the end of the week, rookie guards take a written exam with essay questions. All lifeguards who have made it through the academy have passed the exam, Hession said.
But Rookie Academy has caused some would-be lifeguards to realize the summer job wasn’t for them. As many as 10 to 20 percent of the rookie group hired as summer lifeguards over the past two years dropped after realizing through the academy how intense the job can be.
“If they feel like it’s over their head, they can D. O. R. - drop on request,” Hession said. “There’s no disrespect. No questions asked. It’s not a job for everybody.”
Even when the guards are up in the stands, they aren’t just soaking up the sun. They’re scanning the ocean for swimmers who might be potential drowning victims, Hession said.
“That’s one of the most intricate parts of the job, learning to scan the ocean,” he said. “We’re looking for anything out of the ordinary, any unusual movement, someone with their hair across their face, someone waving their arms.
“You’re going to scan the ocean north to south, south to north, but you’re going to go back to that person who is giving you signs they’re not a strong swimmer. You’re not going to dwell on them, but you’re always going to look at them because that’s the most likely drowning victim.”
Increasingly, the lifeguard training starts younger and younger. Most of the beaches across the Jersey Shore offer Junior Lifeguard programs to youth, sometimes as young as 6.
Bryan Gleason and Jillian Miller, the coordinators of Long Branch’s program, teach 120 kids this year. They’ll learn all of the same skills and practice all of the same drills, except rowboat rescues, that summer lifeguards learn, Gleason said.
The program has grown significantly since it started in Long Branch 13 years ago, Gleason said. The first year, Gleason taught 10 kids from Long Branch the very basics of water rescues. Now, the program has some of the top lifeguard equipment paid for by the Ray Licata Memorial Swim, an annual event that honors a West End beach regular and lifeguard volunteer.
Sure, some of the kids in the junior lifeguard programs are there for a fun time on their summer break from school, Gleason said. But others will become the next generation of top-notch lifeguards protecting the shore.
“The best of the best here will become lifeguards,” he said. “Some of these kids are better now than some of our lifeguards with five years of experience.”
Gleason and Miller said they heard a range of responses when, away from the water, people ask what they do for a living. Some will thank them. Others: “That’s awesome. You get to sit at the beach all day.”
Regardless the comments, Gleason smiles and nods.
“To the thousands of people who see us in and out of the water on a busy day, you don’t have to explain to them what we do,” he said.
Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, https://www.app.com
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