Friday, May 13, 2011

Lifeguard Salaries and Benefits, by B. Chris Brewster

"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.

Respectfully submitted,

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.


Lifesaving Aye,

B. Chris Brewster
Phone (mobile): 1-619-807-7777 (California, USA GMT -7)
SKYPE: bcbrewster
Twitter: @uslifesaver
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United States Lifesaving Association:
International Life Saving Federation:

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Danielle said...

Great article, and so well written!

gcleeper said...

Great article, thanks Brewster

I see three distinct issues..

1. Lifeguard pay, Brewster hit it on the heard, a red herring, Five of the six existing city council members approved the pay less than two years ago.

2. Pensions. CAlPers pensions and the defined benefit program is unrealistic and should be changed for ALL public employees. The Newport Beach lifeguards are 13 strong and represent a small spit in the ocean. I recommend 3% at 55 for these lifeguards until the City is ready to renegotiate all pensions.

3. The most important issue is the lowering of staff that actually patrol the beaches, summer and winter.
These lifeguard officers are the lifeguards who supervise the annual Jr lifeguard tryouts, seasonal lifeguard tryouts, annual training for boat operators, training for new seasonal lifeguards and annual fitness testing for all guards.

The Temporary Fire Chief wants to shorten the lifeguards officers from twelve months to five months per year.

This will not allow for the training mentioned above.

More important is How will the employees be replaced when they leave the city for full time employment ?

These are lifguards with an average of more than fifteen years experience and have families to support.

gcleeper said...


I am not a Newport Beach Lifeguard

K said...

My favorite quote from city council was this-
"Also, not enough people swim in the colder months to warrant the patrols, said Councilwoman Leslie Daigle. She said the city observed beachgoers during the winter months and found that many go to run, walk and enjoy their coffee, but few venture into the surf. At times, the water dips below 60 degrees." They must have observed all of this from the boardwalk.

c.conway said...

Thank you Brewster for a well written article. I completely agree and appreciate the "real-life" actual salary comparisons. Politics can be a nasty business and just like on the playground, if bullies aren't stopped, then they get their way.
Just as in the local coffee houses, issues are blurted out as fact, and must be challenged and proven or discarded as senseless rhetoric.
Coverage of Newport Beach has already been pared down to the minimum, even to the point of closing towers early on slow days, and bare bones minimum pre and post summer staffing.
I would like to see these people leading the charge in favor of these improper cuts on the beach during a big south swell making hairy rescues with full staffing just one time, let alone during periods of current minimum staffing. Then let's talk.

sue said...

Thank you for a level headed analysis. These data will never be shared with the public unless someone makes a concerted effort to spread the facts.

I, like many supporters of the Guards, have tried to stress the points mentioned but in a less formal manner. Without these facts presented to the city council and public, the decisions made are likely to be flawed because of lack of information.

Has the article been forwarded to the council? To other interested parties? Can we help spread the news. Sue Moore

William Maguire said...

Today's OC Register carried an editorial column on the continuing lifeguard salary issue at the following link including reference to salaries in L.A. County and other OC areas such as Huntington Beach:

William Maguire said...

"County Recurrent" *** Full Disclosure/Caveat: Public discourse is occurring on the topic of lifeguard salaries. "County Recurrent" is simply the messenger of opinions on the topic. The earlier opinion written by B. Chris Brewster and published on our blog is a perfect example of the public discourse which we welcome. There should be no fear of such communications. We have received a couple of cautions on presenting this topic. There is no bias here. "County Recurrent" has always been about being as inclusive as possible a source for lifeguard related information. It is not our policy to be exclusionary. There is not a bigger trumpet being sounded in praise of lifeguards and rescues and retirement events, etc. At the same time, we are not going to shy away from public debate and discourse on topics that are relevant to lifeguarding. The more information the better.

Luis Miguel Pascual said...

Dear Chris.
At Segovia, Spain, lifesavers salary has decreased from 1100 to 800 Euro since 2008. Al public pools have to get a Lifeguard, due to regulations, but managers are looking for cheapest ones, even if they are inexperienced or had not up-to-date their skills and do not provides spare time for training or update. Less than 1% of Segovia's Lifesavers are on duty 5 years after his qualification.
I am sad to see that this is a common problem around the world, and only a global conscience would give solutions. Starting to spread our aims into bathers and politicians.