Spending time saving lives

Lifeguard: The job has changed since he started in 1962 - but Warren Williams still loves patrolling the beach.

June 15, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY - On a typical morning, Warren Williams rolls toward a typical crisis: a boy with a sliver of boardwalk the size of a Popsicle stick in his foot.

Williams and his all-terrain vehicle chug north past the sand-sculpting evangelist. Past the guys with "drink `til she's cute" T-shirts sleeping off last night's underage chugging. Past gaggles of seminude high school girls.

Williams shakes his head: "They didn't look that way when I started out."

When Williams started saving lives here, the Pendletones had just changed their name to the Beach Boys and released "Surfin' Safari" and television lifeguard David Hasselhoff of "Baywatch" was a school kid in Baltimore.

The year was 1962. Lifeguarding in America has changed with the times.

In the past decade, the profession has taken a beating. Teens are more career-minded, and their job options are greater; even fast-food joints offer benefits and signing bonuses.

Some youths see lifesaving as more slackerly than studly. Add to that a growing concern over the health risks of lifeguarding - exposure to the sun's rays, to hepatitis or AIDS in victims - and exposure to lawsuits, and the result is a nationwide shortage of lifeguards.

Furthermore, cutbacks in community swimming programs 20 years ago have eroded the stock of top swimmers. "We've seen, nationally, a decline in the people with the skills to do the job," said Chris Brewster, an officer with the United States Lifesaving Association and chief of the San Diego Lifeguard Service.

The dearth of real-life Hasselhoffs has forced New York City to close pools and New Jersey to close beaches.

In Maryland, state parks employ half the lifeguards they once did and are now telling patrons to swim at their own risk.

"We've tried to get away from the lifeguard-as-a-babysitter atmosphere," said Bill Simmons, the state's waterfront management director and a ranger at Assateague Island State Park. "There are just not as many young folks interested in these jobs as there were 10, 15 or 20 years ago."

Ocean City has bucked the trend with a pay raise (from $8.10 to $10.29 an hour) and heavy recruiting on the Internet and at college job fairs.

And then there's trend-busting Warren Williams.

At 61, he's Ocean City's oldest lifeguard, and, at 38 years and counting, is the longest-serving guard. During the week, he's an electrical engineer at NASA's rocket-launching Wallops Island Flight Facility near Chincoteague, Va. But every weekend and holiday during the summer, he patrols Ocean City's 10 miles of beach. He spends all his 26 vacation days working on the Beach Patrol.

"Working on the Beach Patrol is his vacation," said Williams' wife, Lana, who met Warren on the boardwalk the same year he started lifeguarding.

Williams' legend grew when his son, Sean, joined him on the Beach Patrol for a 10-year stint, while Lana worked as a lifeguard at a nearby pool. Sean is now a chiropractor, and Lana is an educator. But Williams is still a lifeguard.

"He's only ever missed one day of work, and that was his son's wedding," said Butch Arbin, captain of the Beach Patrol and a 28-year veteran.

"And he would have missed that but his wife made him go."

Another "surf rescue technician," as the city's guards are now officially known, pays Williams the top compliment: "The dude's still doing rescues."

Williams has pulled more than 1,000 people from the surf - 17 in one day in September, in the churning wake of Hurricane Dennis. One of those drifted out to sea as her family stood on the shore and watched. She had gone under twice by the time Williams reached her. She cried, "We're not going to make it," and he almost believed her. "I thought I was going to lose her," he said.

None of Williams' near-drowning victims has died, although 12 people died of heart attacks, despite his efforts to resuscitate them. Of those he's pulled from the water, maybe half say thanks. Most people storm off - "I'm fine, I'm fine" - embarrassed at having to be saved by a man who is now a grandfather.

With his perpetually bare feet, freckled skin and gray-dusted red hair, Williams doesn't look as if he's eligible for federal retirement benefits. His soothing voice has a slight southern twang and a lilt of Southern California.

Williams grew up in Berlin, near Ocean City. After a year in the Army, he was sitting on the boardwalk in 1962 when two lifeguard officers walked past and asked him to try out. He was just hanging at the beach anyway, so why not get paid? An avid swimmer and runner, Williams passed the test easily.

Later that year, he went to work for NASA and has balanced one job against the other ever since. He swims nightly to keep in shape, because he's far from ready to quit. He finds the rewards of his NASA job elusive, but as a lifeguard, "you go out and rescue someone and you feel it immediately."

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