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Ocean Force: Huntington Beach, OC

Officer Mike Bartlett
Officer Mike Bartlett
Q: What has been your most terrifying moment as a lifeguard?
A: On March 3, 2005, four swimmers were pulled offshore in a large rip current. It was around 3:30pm and I was the only unit on patrol when I spotted the group.

I immediately radioed for urgent back-up and swam out to them. I could hear their screams for help and feared that I might soon be fighting for my own life, since there were no other guards close enough to help and no surfers close enough to assist. These were four male teens fighting for their lives to stay afloat.

I directed the first victim, who had some swimming ability, out of the rip current to safety and focused my efforts on the other three, who were non-swimmers and much farther out. Victim number two was in full panic mode. I calmed him down and pulled him to the third swimmer, who was motionless with his nose barely out of the water. I then proceeded to swim the group together out toward the fourth victim, who was also motionless and had disappeared under the surface.

I swam to the spot where I last saw him, looked down, and pulled him up by his fingers. He was still alive but barely breathing. I held two of the weakest victims above water while the third victim used my buoy like a surfboard to stay afloat. I remember hearing the sirens coming from lifeguard back-up units. I basically floated two guys by eggbeater kicking and waiting for help to arrive.

We eventually got everyone safely to shore. They all had full recoveries. The experience really opened my eyes to how dangerous the job is and how quickly one team member can go from rescuer to victim without trained back-up.

Q: Describe the first time you saved a life.
A: My first rescue was my first day on the job at Tower 12. I noticed a girl was getting pulled out in a rip current. There were a number of people around but it was quiet. No splashing, no screaming, almost as though no one noticed but me. So I stood up, grabbed my fins. My phone rang. It was the tower guard next to me. He said, "Yes, that is a rescue and you probably should go!" I responded and swam her back to shore. She was very thankful that I saved her life but I felt embarrassed; I should have responded earlier.

Q: What is the biggest fear you have about what could happen on the job?
A: It is my understanding that the San Diego Lifeguard Service was formed after 17 swimmers drowned on a single day in the 1930s. Huntington Beach has more than 10 million beach visitors per year and the beach gets busier every year.

Over the decades, it seems the lifeguard profession has been very slow to adapt to the changing conditions and standardizing the profession. It would be very heartbreaking to see a tragedy like a multiple victim drowning occur at any beach in which you know should have been prevented.

Q: What are the most satisfying moments on this job?
A: It's the mother who losses her child on the beach. They almost always fear the child was abducted but I don't think it has ever happened at Huntington Beach. Sometimes it takes five minutes to reunite the lost child with the mother and other times it takes five hours. The reunion between a mother and her child can bring tears to your eyes.

Q: What is the strangest thing you've seen on this job?
A: One thing that always strikes me as strange is what we hear. Usually kids will say this but sometimes adult tourist will ask me, "What island is that out there? Is that part of Hawaii?" You just have to bite your tongue!
Officer Chris Clarke
Officer Chris Clarke
Q: What has been your most terrifying moment working as a lifeguard?
A: Recently, we had a night call where a drunken lady jumped off the pier into large surf and a strong current. Two police officers were patrolling the pier, and we heard them contact their dispatcher over the police radio. We responded from headquarters and I entered the water on a rescue paddle board.

The police officers directed me to the victim. She was panicked and not responsive. I got her onto the paddle board just before a large wave broke on top of us. She lost hold of the board and when I returned to the surface I couldn't find her. It was just a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity. I was terrified that I had lost her. She popped up about ten yards away. When I got her back on the board I promised myself that I was not going to lose her again. We were struck by half dozen more waves and lost the board on the way back to shore. She was assessed and released by the paramedics. The police gave her a ticket for jumping from the pier.

Q: Describe the first time you saved a life.
A: Tower 5 has always been a busy tower and my first day working by myself we had a mass rescue next to the pier. Six guards responded to the rescue, and all of us had multiple victims on our buoys. I reached a man who was in real trouble. All I could see were his hands splashing and his face popping out of the water sporadically. When I gave him my buoy he was so relieved and thankful. Now that he was afloat I could tell that he was very large. I struggled to get him to shore and got chewed out by my supervisor for taking so long.

Q: What is the biggest fear you have about what could happen on the job?
A: I feel responsible every time someone drowns and I wish I could do more to prevent it.

Q: What is the strangest thing you've seen on this job?
A: It seems that everyday I see strange things. The beach is a magnet for the strange. We have vagrants sitting along the service road and sea lions coming to shore. People are more likely scream "help" for the sea lion than another human being. That's strange to me.
Officer Matt Karl
Officer Matt Karl
Q: What has been your most terrifying moment working as a lifeguard?
A: A recent terrifying moment occurred over a couple of hours this past July 4th. With extremely large crowds, warm water and dangerous rip currents, I watched as our resources were stretched to the maximum. Even with every available lifeguard in the water making rescues, there were additional victims nearly going underwater before we could get someone to help them. I thought for sure we were going to have at least a couple people drown that day, but somehow we managed to get everyone home safely. I was surprised that after 27 years on the job, the stress from that day gave me nightmares of people drowning as I watched helplessly.

Q: Describe the first time you saved a life.
A: I was as a 16-year-old lifeguard, my first year on the job. During a very large south swell. I responded towards two body boarders who were entering the water near a strong rip current. By the time I got to them, the rip had already taken them and they had begun to panic.

Another lifeguard arrived and we each took one victim as we got pounded by a large set. I would try to hold onto my victim each time a wave approached but we would get hit so hard that when I came to the surface all I could see was his body board on the surface and the victim attached by his leash, somewhere underwater. I would drag him to the surface for a breath of air just as we would get hit by the next wave.

While trying to hold onto him, I dislocated my shoulder and again only found his body board at the surface when I came up. Luckily my shoulder popped back into its socket and I was able to swim over and bring him to the surface. Just as I was ready to give up, we had gotten pushed in far enough that I could touch the bottom. Another guard arrived and we dragged the victim to shore.

Before I was able to think about what had just happened, by supervisor showed up and said "Good job. Now hurry back to your tower!" I never got a chance to sit and think about how close I came to not saving that guy or how bad my shoulder hurt. I just continued working that busy day hoping that another rescue like that one didn't happen again. My shoulder gave me problems for years after that and still isn't 100%. The victim went to the hospital but made it.

Q: What do you hope is the future for your department?
A: Maintaining a high level of service is something all of our staff feels we owe to the public and to the lifeguards who came before us. I hope when I retire, our reputation has only strengthened.

Q: What is your greatest fear?
A: I think most lifeguards have a fear that a momentary lapse of attention causes a swimmer in distress to go unnoticed.

Q: What is the best part of your work?
A: Doing a good job and helping someone out is satisfaction enough, but when someone comes back later to thank you for assisting them, that's even better. Two years ago I received a Medal of Valor for performing a medical aid in which a young man almost bled to death. Getting that kind of recognition from your superiors, the public and the victim was really special.

Q: What is the strangest thing you've ever seen on the beach?
A: The OP Pro riot in 1986 [link to]. I watched as hundreds of people lit police cars on fire, broke into our headquarters and looted everything in sight. After 40 minutes of complete free for all, the riot police came and restored order.
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