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Ian Burton, San Clemente Marine Safety Officer, stand in the training room of San Clemente’s Marine Safety office. Tryouts for seasonal lifeguard positions are Feb. 27. Photo: Eric Heinz

By Eric Heinz 

Entrusted with the responsibility of saving a life on a daily basis is a different kind of summer job, especially for those as young as teenagers.

“It’s definitely not like most summer jobs that 16- to 18-year-olds have,” said Ian Burton, San Clemente Marine Safety Officer. “Let’s say you have a mom who can’t find her 3-year-old, this kid (lifeguard) has to get information from her while watching the people in the water.”

Lifeguard tryouts for the city of San Clemente Marine Safety division are scheduled for a 7 a.m. check-in with the tryouts starting at 8 a.m., Feb. 27, at the San Clemente Pier.

“For the kids who are into swimming and water polo, it’s not that strenuous; the only part that makes it strenuous is that it’s competitive,” he said.

Burton said if they have two similar people trying out, it can be a matter of couple minutes between competitors’ swimming times that separates who they hire and who they don’t.

“It’s a fun job, but it’s a hard job,” Burton said. “You’re scanning the water for eight to nine hours. And it’s a lot of responsibility watching out for 600 people or so in the water. You’re out in the elements. There’s big surf, and the water could be cold. It’s rewarding, but you work hard.”

The tryouts are measured by knowledge of the job as well as physical endurance.

“The day of the tryouts they do the two physical events,” Burton said. “If you make the time for the physical events, you’re given some time to take a break, then do the second physical event: run, swim, run. Everyone who makes that time will be invited to do a brief interview later that day.”

This year, Marine Safety expects to take about 10 potential lifeguards into training, but officials said it’s still “up in the air.”

“Those who make it to training go through a 96-hour consecutive training on Saturdays and Sundays for five weeks,” Burton said. “After those weekends are all over, they’ll be put on a list based on how they finish.”

Those who make it to the training session are compensated $10.38 an hour.

People interested in trying out for a seasonal lifeguard position this year must be 16 years old by June 30, 2016, and must be accompanied by an adult when registering if under 18 years old.

“(The average age) of lifeguards who try out is probably 16 to 18 years old, but it varies from year to year,” Burton said. “Sometimes you get a couple more college-age kids, but I’d say our rookies are junior, senior high school level.”

Burton said every year is different, and the average age of people who make training varies.

“It’s hard to say what percentage make it and what don’t, and it also varies for the people we take into training and how many we hire,” he said. “It’s very competitive. They’re scored daily in training on their performance and first aid, and it’s all compiled at the end.”

Each year, about 40 to 50 people try out for the job. Lifeguards who are hired for the summer are paid $17.31 per hour.

At the end of the training, there is a comprehensive test that is basically a final exam. Trainees are tested on medical aid and how to properly handle law enforcement. Each lifeguard is ranked based on their final results from the physical performance and test scores.

The level of medical training is first responder, and American Heart Association criteria for CPR is taught. San Clemente Marine Safety does not require prior experience or knowledge.

“Once you make it past your rookie season and become a recurring lifeguard, the next season you do have to go through 16 hours of training and a re-qualification swim, but it’s not the same as the tryout,” Burton said.

Burton said tryouts are hosted every year, but there have been “very rare” occasions when enough recurring lifeguards are available for the summer.

Five full-time staff members work throughout the year: a chief, a lieutenant and three Marine Safety officers. There are a few supervisors who receive work during the winter.

“At the end of the summer there’s a seniority list based on performance evaluation and longevity,” Burton said. “The higher you are on that list, the more likely you are to get winter hours, but coming off your rookie season, you shouldn’t expect to see any winter work. Granted, it all depends on turnover rate. It’s a great summer job. It can be something where you save someone’s life here or somewhere else you take your training.”

Testimony of the Tryout

Ian said he did his tryouts in Huntington Beach in 1990. He said he thought he was “young enough” to not be too stressed about it.

Medical aid standards and communication technology have adjusted over the years, according to Ian, but the tryouts have been consistent.

In 2007, San Clemente ocean lifeguard supervisor Trevor Milosch tried out for the lifeguards and eventually became a full-time staff member.

“There was probably about 60 people (who tried out). I was 16 and it was cold, with 3- to 4-foot surf,” Milosch said. “I had done Junior Lifeguards and things like that, and I kind of knew how this was going to go, but it was kind of daunting. You’re waiting for them to announce who is going on to the next segment of the tryout.”

Milosch said his interview was later in the afternoon and because he was a San Clemente local he was able to go home, rest and come back prepared for the interview. Others are not so lucky, having to be questioned immediately after the physical test.

Trevor Milosch, San Clemente ocean lifeguard supervisor, had just recovered from a concussion when he tried out for the lifeguard position in 2007. Photo: Eric Heinz
Trevor Milosch, San Clemente ocean lifeguard supervisor, had just recovered from a concussion when he tried out for the lifeguard position in 2007. Photo: Eric Heinz

“You think about going to an interview, some people are going in wearing sweatpants and a parka,” he said.

The seriousness of the job was not lost on Milosch.

“I remember I was being interviewed and a lifeguard at the time was just staring me down. I was terrified,” Milosch said. “I was playing lacrosse at the time at JSerra, and I suffered a major concussion, so I had just gotten cleared to work out just before the tryouts after a month of not being able to.”

He said his parents were permanent lifeguards and he was compelled to follow in their footsteps.

“You want to get in the water and get used to training in the water. A lot of people swim really well in a pool, but they can’t swim in the ocean because the chop bothers them, it’s cold, the currently moves them around or a wave crashes on them and they don’t know what to do,” Milosch said. “It’s a similar skill set but it’s a bit different, more of a specialty.”

Lifeguard View 

San Clemente Marine Safety patrols about two miles of coastline in 14 different towers including the crow’s nest at the Pier. In the Lifeguard headquarters, webcams and dispatch equipment assist the line of sight.

Recently, the lifeguards were given a drone from the San Clemente Lifeguard and Junior Lifeguard Foundation, and Marine Safety is currently going through drone safety training and registering the craft with the Federal Aviation Administration. It’s easier and safer than detecting a shark while in the water, and it gets there faster to get information if a vessel is sinking.

Marine Safety files hundreds of incident reports but has not had a drowning in the last five years, Burton said.

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