What it takes to be a Long Island lifeguard

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Firefighters, police officers and paramedics are the types of first responders typically hailed as everyday heroes — and for good reason. But many people overlook the contributions made by lifeguards. Without them, Long Islanders wouldn't be able to enjoy the carefree summers at the beach we take for granted. From the physical fitness to the emergency training, lifeguarding requires more knowledge, attentiveness and athleticism than one may expect.

Diving in

(Credit: Leigh Anderson)

"Once people get the beach in their system, they never want to leave," said Jones Beach lifeguard Brad Hepworth.

After nearly 23 years, he still doesn't consider himself to be a "longtime" member of the industry, especially when compared to his colleagues who have been part of beach patrol for 40-some odd summers.

The Jones Beach Lifeguard Corps is made up of the lifeguards at New York State Parks: Jones Beach, Robert Moses, Heckscher, Sunken Meadow, Hither Hills, Orient Point Beach and Montauk Downs.

For his first 15 years, Hepworth worked at Jones Beach's Central Mall, one of the busiest fields on the Eastern Seaboard. In 2010, he made the transition to Robert Moses, where he now serves as a lieutenant lifeguard on Field 3.

During the long offseason, Hepworth teaches English at Garden City High School. Teaching is a common profession among lifeguards since they get summers off from school.

Misconceptions vs. reality

Hepworth said that lifeguards are often typecast as
(Credit: Leigh Anderson)

Hepworth said that lifeguards are often typecast as "surf bums" trying to make extra money for the summer. The reality is quite different.

Police officers, firefighters, teachers, attorneys -- even a cardiologist -- make up the contingent of Jones Beach lifeguards who serve out of love for their jobs and the desire to help the public. And what most people don't understand is the difficulty of the lifeguard test and the necessity to stay in shape.

The Jones Beach lifeguard test is pro-rated, said Hepworth, meaning that lifeguard hopefuls must pass minimum requirements and score within a certain percentile against their competitors. For example, applicants must be able to do a 100-yard swim in 1 minute, 15 seconds or less. But a 1:14.9 does not guarantee a job if the rest of the field swims much faster.

"You just have to be an exceptional, exceptional athlete," Hepworth said, motioning to the lifeguards on duty at Robert Moses Field 3. "Every single person that happens to be sitting right now was at the very least a collegiate swimmer."

Pictured: Eric Solnick, left, and John Veit keep watch over Field 3.

Physical fitness

The test also includes a 3/4-mile run on
(Credit: Leigh Anderson)

The test also includes a 3/4-mile run on a track, a "dummy drag" and a run-swim-run. The latter consists of a 100-yard run to enter the water; a 300-yard swim that includes swimming out to a buoy, turning and swimming parallel to the shore to another buoy and swimming back to shore; and a 100-yard run after reaching shore. Like the 100-yard swim, these aspects of the test are also pro-rated, and a failure in any element results in disqualification from the test.

For those who pass, a weeklong period of training follows; a rigorous workout regimen that ensures guards-to-be are as comfortable as possible in the water. During this period, they are evaluated on their entries into the water while handling buoys, lines, boards, kayaks -- anything that may be needed in a future rescue.

Training and conditioning continue every day on the job. New York State Park beaches operate on an hour-up, hour-down basis for lifeguards, meaning they'll have an hour in the chair, followed by an hour-long break -- often taken to train -- followed by another hour in the chair, and so on and so forth throughout the day.

Sitting in a beach buggy looking out across Field 3, Hepworth pointed out guards going out to swim, run or paddle on boards or in kayaks -- all different components of their on-the-job training.

"The firefighters that work here have a great quote: 'We don't get paid for what we do, we get paid for what we can do," Hepworth said. "We, of course, hope nothing happens, but we simply have to be aware and train to react the nanosecond that it does."

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Emergency training

Jones Beach offers emergency training for lifeguards, which
(Credit: Ralph Collis)

Jones Beach offers emergency training for lifeguards, which covers skills such as CPR, AED and first aid. But there are other programs people can register for in order to get the Red Cross certification needed to become a pool lifeguard.

At Lifeguard Training NY in Lindenhurst and Lawrence, owner and head instructor Mordechai Eliyahu gives many lifeguards their start by providing a 27.5-hour class over three days that culminates in Red Cross certification. This certification is enough to be a pool lifeguard in Suffolk County, but the Nassau County certification test is another requirement for working at a Nassau pool. Lifeguards can also go on to take the oceanfront test if they are in prime physical condition.

Eliyahu's classes provide CPR, AED and first aid training, but perhaps even more importantly, they teach students to understand human anatomy so they know how to react in an emergency, he explained. Students learn how to handle all types of pool rescues, including allergic reactions, choking and spinal injuries. Eliyahu's advice to his students is simple: "Don't ever, ever, ever second-guess your training. If you second-guess your training, you're going to freeze up and that could cost someone's life. Every second counts."

When asked about the most rewarding part of his job, Eliyahu's answer was quick: "When a student emails or calls me and tells me they've saved someone's life."

Preventive measures & rescues

As Hepworth surveyed the beach, he pointed out
(Credit: Leigh Anderson)

As Hepworth surveyed the beach, he pointed out the incoming tide, the south wind that tends to flatten the waves, the slightly tanner areas of water than indicate rip currents that drag swimmers away from shore, and patrons he was keeping an eye on who had shown signs that they weren't particularly comfortable in the water.

"We do a lot of preventative, proactive lifeguarding," he said, explaining that most of a lifeguard's job consists of keeping swimmers away from strong rips and making sure swimmers stay between the green flags that define the area where swimming is permitted, among other safety enforcement.

Of course, even with all the preventive measures taken, rescues happen on a regular basis. According to the Water Safety Office at Belmont Lake State Park, lifeguards at Jones Beach State Park alone make an average of 19 rescues per day during the summer. Hepworth recounted several of his experiences: people who had overdosed on the beach, a woman with epilepsy who had had a seizure and fallen into the water, a girl who had drifted out past her comfort zone and couldn't swim.

But one of his rescues that stood out the most was one that could have been easily avoided if beach patrons followed the rules: stay out of the water when lifeguards are off duty.

"We were sitting out here one night, we had just gotten off work, showered up, were about to leave," Hepworth said, referring to himself and another lifeguard that had been working with him. After hearing a woman screaming from the beach for her boys, who were being sucked into the ocean by a rip current, Hepworth and his partner ditched their belongings and raced in to rescue the kids.

"There's a reason we're gainfully employed," Hepworth said. "There's a reason we have to be in shape, there's a reason we do all the training we do. If there's no lifeguard, don't go in the water."

That same sentiment was echoed by Cary Epstein, who has been a Jones Beach lifeguard for the past 20 years.

"Swimming's a recreational sport, but it can become very dangerous, so that's why we're here: to protect and to serve," he said.

A strong spirit

Epstein is the organizer of the annual Jones
(Credit: Leigh Anderson)

Epstein is the organizer of the annual Jones Beach Lifeguard Invitational Tournament, which stimulates the competitive spirit of surf lifesaving and invigorates members of the lifeguarding community. The competition also serves as a fun way to train for real-life situations. Competitions are held in different parts of the country on local and national levels.

This year's Jones Beach tournament took place on July 20, with teams from several Long Island beaches and one from Narragansett, Rhode Island, facing off in various athletic events. Some of the events, like the run-swim-run, are taken straight from the lifeguarding test, while others are more innovative -- namely the "beach flags" competition. A test of reaction time, speed and agility, this event is a lifeguard's version of "musical chairs." Participants must race their competitors to capture "flags" -- strips of garden hose that are stuck in the sand -- and there is always one less flag than there are competitors.

"What I love the most is when the spectators on the beach [who] are not too familiar with lifeguarding and the sport of surf lifesaving see who we are and what we're doing," Epstein said about the tournament. "They gain a whole new respect for lifesaving."

The fun of competing is just one of many things that motivates lifeguards to come back every summer. There's no other place they'd rather be than at the beach, and nothing compares to the feeling of saving people's lives.

"Our main goal is [that] everybody that comes to the beach today goes home, and goes home intact, as a family," Hepworth said. "And what's more important than that? Greatest job there is."

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