History of Lifeguarding in California
Aquatic safety in parks dates back to the earliest days of our department. The first wardens, custodians or rangers no doubt thought about seasonal water flow and levels, and the dangers in the rivers, streams, lakes, waterfalls in their parklands. They knew safe crossings, the impacts of flooding, the good fishing spots, and picnic spots where wading pools might be. As appropriate, they had tools like canoes, rowboats, lines and even grappling hooks.
Wherever we came in contact with water, we had to deal with the potential dangers associated with this dynamic element.
The use of lifeguards on beaches in California began in the late 1930’s. The beach was inexpensive recreation in the post Depression era. Communities grew around seasonal beach attendance. Transportation improvements made the beach accessible to the inland communities. The influx of swimmers into the surf-zone in Southern California lead to drowning on a sometimes massive scale:
• Early 1900’s Newport Beach - 18 drowned in one weekend early 1900’s
• 1918 - San Diego 13 people drowned in one day
As a response, municipalities developed lifeguard services modeled after east coast lifeguard operations. Numerous beaches had “swim lines” or “lifelines” which were ropes attached to shore that waders clung to. However, lifelines proved inadequate because struggling swimmers were not always able to hold onto them.
Some municipalities assigned police officers, or asked volunteers to perform water rescues. Early lifeguard rescue tools included the use of row boats (dory boats), the rescue paddle board, and throw-lines. Swimming rescues were considered a last resort by these pioneer lifeguards due to the hazard presented by a panicked person in the water.
Californians recognized that private ownership of beaches had serious drawbacks and supported bond issues that allowed the Division of Beaches and Parks to acquire significant coastal parcel for public ownership. The bonds provided some development support but beaches were primarily held in local control through operating agreements (LA County).
Acquisition efforts focused around urban areas. Simultaneously, the Division of Beaches and Parks began building campgrounds along the coast as CCC projects. Notably, Doheny and San Clemente State Beaches, midway between Los Angeles and San Diego were constructed in the ‘30s. A 1937 news article stated these would become the Jewels of the Division of Beaches and Parks.
They both became instantly popular and the immediate need for lifeguard service was met with a contract to the county of Orange to put a lifeguard at each beach in the summer.
Post WWII saw the next boom in recreational demand and State Parks embarked upon the new concept of developing day use areas. Huntington State Beach and Silver Strand State Beach were developed as first class facilities in urban zones designed for high volume attendance and activity. Both parks had dangerous surf aspects with an acknowledged need for lifeguard service. After exploring the possibility of contracting with adjacent communities, a decision was made that Parks could create their own lifeguard services.