Lifeguard hopefuls seek to show off that saving grace

TRYING TIMES IN OCEAN CITY

May 31, 1992|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

OCEAN CITY -- Standing on the beach, an orange buoy at his feet, Scott Christiansen is shivering, his skin turning hues of purple.

Clad only in swim trunks, the lifeguard hopeful from Philadelphia picks up the buoy -- for what must be the umpteenth time -- and races into the frigid surf.

Mr. Christiansen, 19, is simulating a surf rescue, swimming out to lifeguard playing victim in the ocean, where the temperature is just 57 degrees and the waves are 3 to 4 feet.

"This is one of the hardest things I've ever done," he said afterward, sipping steaming coffee at a Burger King restaurant, just off the inlet beach.

So rigorous is the test, which includes a quarter-mile ocean swim, that he was the only one of the five young men vying to join the Ocean City Beach Patrol who completed the tryout yesterday.

Weather conditions -- overcast skies spitting rain, winds of 10 knots and a 59-degree air temperature -- didn't help their efforts.

"I'm used to swimming in a pool," said David Schott, 21, of Bowie, who failed to complete the quarter-mile swim. "I just couldn't swim with those waves."

Mr. Schott, a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, planned to take the test again today. But if lifeguarding didn't work out, he planned to return to his job as a cotton-candy vendor at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

About 400 people, from as far away as London, have applied for spots on the Beach Patrol's 150-member force of lifeguards -- now called surf rescue technicians.

About 95 percent of the jobs, which pay up to $7.74 an hour, have been filled, said Capt. George Schoepf.

The remainder were expected to be filled yesterday. But with only one successful candidate, more tests are expected today.

The number of applicants this year has been larger and posts have been filled sooner, Captain Schoepf said. He attributed the increase to aggressive recruiting and a lackluster economy.

Ninety-five lifeguards have returned. Like new candidates, they must pass the tests to occupy one of the white towers along the city's 10-mile shoreline.

"Everyone from the inlet to 146th Street has passed this test," said Lt. Skip Lee. "Everyone must be up to par. Theirs is a serious responsibility."

Last summer, lifeguards conducted more than 4,000 rescues from the surf and responded to 82 cases of trauma, such as broken necks and heat exhaustion.

On a typical day, a lifeguard deals with everything from lost children and adults to beachgoers failing to obey local ordinances, such as the prohibition on pets at the beach.

For several hours each day from late May through September, the lifeguard watches over about 5,000 people in his or her beach area.

Over Memorial Day weekend, for example, the force, which includes about a dozen women, made 400 rescues, including one involving seven people whose boat capsized.

Besides successfully completing the rescue-simulation exercises yesterday, Mr. Christiansen had to pass a medley of tests consisting of a 150-meter run, 100-meter swim and 150-meter run, as well as a 300- meter run in the soft sand in less than 65 seconds.

"The American Red Cross doesn't come close to what we require," Lieutenant Lee said of the rigorous testing. "It's not like a pool. You have to be able to handle all kinds of things."

Four of the five candidates yesterday dropped out after the first exercise, a quarter-mile swim in the choppy ocean in less than 10 minutes. In his second attempt, Roger Emch finished, but not within the 10-minute limit.

"It's very, very cold," said Mr. Emch, 24, of Silver Spring. "I had a good swim, but my time wasn't up to par. It's very rough."

Overseeing the tryouts was Lieutenant Lee, who said it is not uncommon for applicants to fail the quarter-mile swim. On occasion, all applicants have failed, he said.

"It's a mental game more than anything else," said Mr. Emch, who gave up a full-time job to try to become a lifeguard. "I'll keep doing it until I pass." Applicants are allowed three attempts.

After completing the beach exercises, Mr. Christiansen had to pass basic lifesaving skills (conducted in an indoor pool) and complete a personal interview.

Once hired, he will be on probation for 21 days. He'll have to complete a training program, which includes instruction and training in open-water rescue, Beach Patrol policies, oceanography, use of rescue equipment and first aid.

Those tasks, however, seemed less daunting to him.

"It was a rough day out there," he said, referring to the surf. "I'm happy to have made it."

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