"County Recurrent" News is pleased to present an essay by B. Chris Brewster expressing his opinion regarding the topic of "Lifeguard Salaries and Benefits". Many Thanks to Chris for sharing his thoughts with all of us on this topic.
Lifeguard Salaries and Benefits, by B. Chris Brewster
The lifeguard profession has various incarnations around the country, influenced by issues like the level of water hazard, seasonality (or lack thereof), past experience with rescues and drownings, and the assigned tasks of lifeguards.
For example, a full time, year-round lifeguard working for either the California State Park system or Volusia County, Florida, has a dual role as an armed police officer, with all of the roles and responsibilities of other peace officers in their state. It would be difficult to argue that they should receive less pay than other armed peace officers. Interestingly enough, a California State Park Ranger (peace officer) who is also a lifeguard makes no more money than a park ranger without ocean lifeguard skills, but must maintain the ability to swim 1,000 yards in 20 minutes or less, and all of the other responsibilities of a year-round lifeguard.
Some lifeguards in Los Angeles County are paramedics, who perform essential services in offshore emergencies and on Catalina Island. They also staff a fleet of 32 foot, twin screw fire/rescue boats that effect rescues tens of miles from shore, depending upon the emergency.
In San Diego, the full-time lifeguard staff are all peace officers (though not armed with firearms), and EMTs. They staff a 24-hour, 9-1-1 dispatch center. A minimum of four are on duty 24-hours a day. They handle dozens of cliff rescues each year, staff the fire-rescue boats for Mission Bay, handle boating enforcement on Mission Bay and up to three miles offshore, respond to offshore emergencies, partner with the San Diego Police Department to form the city’s dive team (including underwater search, recovery, and evidence gathering), and staff the city’s renowned River Rescue Team. That team is part of the national Urban Search and Rescue team network and was dispatched to Hurricane Katrina.
These are just a few examples, highlighting some agencies. What has happened over the years in communities that have year-round beach activity and year-round lifeguards is that the lifeguards have shouldered related tasks, which might otherwise have to be handled by other emergency responders (police/fire) with less familiarity with water rescue. Lifeguards working in colder climates, where regular lifeguard duties are seasonal, typically do not have the same opportunities to participate as broadly in related public safety fields, since they are not available for response year-round.
Lifeguards working full-time, year-round are typically compensated at a level somewhat similar to police officers and firefighters, although usually a little less. For example, in Newport Beach, a lifeguard battalion chief may receive a base pay of around $108,000, whereas a fire battalion chief may receive a base pay of around $141,000.
To use San Diego as a further example, the lifeguard chief is at an equivalent level of a deputy fire chief. Both classifications have a maximum possible salary of $172,744. The lifeguard chief oversees a staff of 260 people, a 24-hour, 365 day a year response operation, and an annual operating budget exceeding $15 million. As a comparison, the entire operating budget of the City of Del Mar, California, just to the north of San Diego (population 4,389), is $19 million. The top base pay of a regular (non-supervisory) full-time lifeguard in San Diego is about $59,000.
Recent media attention to Newport Beach is primarily due to the current nationwide political climate, wherein criticism of government is quite strong, combined with an unfortunate conflation of two mostly unrelated issues: pay and staffing levels.
In April 2011, Newport Beach advised its year-round lifeguard staff that it would be cut from 13 to eight. This is highly concerning as the current year-round staff level was arrived at through years of experience in what was needed to ensure adequate safety in off-summer months. Consider the fact the Newport Beach is the home of the legendary Wedge, one of the premier bodysurfing beaches in the world, where waves up to 30 feet are sometimes present. Also, of course, there is year-round water attendance. As is the norm in Southern California, a seasonal lifeguard staff augments (and greatly outnumbers) the year-round staff in summer, with the year-round staff assuming a supervisory role. This reflects seasonality in beach attendance, which is much higher in summer, but nevertheless year-round.
When lifeguards and lifeguard advocates pushed back against these reductions in service, a member of the Newport Beach City Council penned an op-ed in a local newspaper pillorying the year-round lifeguards with respect to their salaries and benefits. As noted earlier, these salaries and benefits are less than those of police officers and firefighters in Newport Beach, but her point seemed aimed at creating public animus toward the lifeguards and currying favor with certain political elements, to help further an agenda of cutting lifeguard protection. Thus the compensation of the employees was used as an excuse to reduce safety services for the general public, who have no direct control over those salaries.
Beach lifeguard salaries in California, like those of other municipal workers, are arrived at via negotiations between cities and workers, typically represented by unions. In California, the Supreme Court has allowed strikes by public employees, with exceptions for strikes that create a substantial and imminent threat to the health or safety of the public (i.e. public safety workers). So elected officials in California typically may impose wages they consider appropriate and adequate without recourse from safety employees (other than to quit). The current pay levels of lifeguards and other public safety employees in California should be understood in this light. It is the representatives elected by the voters who determined the appropriateness of their compensation.
Perhaps most importantly, this debate is distracting from a much more critical issue, which is that if the off-summer lifeguard staffing levels in Newport Beach are reduced by 38% as proposed, beach and water safety for the general public will be similarly lessened.
My view is that beach lifeguards are public safety professionals and should be paid commensurate. Regardless, since Newport Beach lifeguard pay levels are set by the Newport Beach City Council itself, lifeguard pay is a red herring in this debate. The real issue here is whether lifeguard staffing for most of the year should be reduced by 38%. Since the current staffing levels are based on past history and demonstrated need, then unless that need can be shown to have declined or been improperly assessed, no change is justified.
B. Chris Brewster
Copyright B. Chris Brewster 2011. All Rights Reserved. Posted here with permission. The opinions expressed hereinabove are solely those of the author.
B. Chris Brewster
Phone (mobile): 1-619-807-7777 (California, USA GMT -7)
News Group: http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/LifesavingNews/
United States Lifesaving Association: www.usla.org
International Life Saving Federation: www.ilsf.org
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Will Maguire, Editor
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DISCLAIMER: County Recurrent is not affiliated with nor sponsored by LACOLA or LACoFD. The opinions expressed in the essay above by B. Chris Brewster are his own and are presented here in furtherance of the ongoing conversation on this topic.
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