Malibu lifeguards ready for busy summer season

Lifeguard Heather Plasch keeps a close watch on ocean conditions and beachgoers from her assigned lifeguard tower at Westward Beach.

More than 400,000 people visited Malibu’s beaches during the Memorial Day weekend. However, peak season in Malibu takes place from Fourth of July through Labor Day.

By Jimy Tallal / Special to the Malibu Times

As lifeguard Capt. Simon Snyder surveyed his terrain from the control tower at Zuma Beach lifeguard headquarters a week before Memorial Day, he said there was much to do to get ready for the summer crowds. First, since many of Malibu’s 27 lifeguard towers are moved off the beach during the winter to avoid sand erosion and storms, they all have to be brought back and repositioned before the summer season.

In addition, members of the permanent year-round lifeguard staff stay busy taking training classes before summer to get their required annual re-certifications in subjects like scuba diving and emergency medical procedures. The off-season is also the best time to practice water rescues in inflatable rescue boats and personal watercraft, because, during the busy season, too many people are in the water for rescue drills to be carried out safely.

Malibu’s lifeguards are a division of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The designated “Northern Section” provides ocean lifeguard service for the Malibu coast from Nicholas Canyon to Big Rock, with section headquarters located in a two-story building on Zuma Beach.

In a telephone interview, lifeguard Capt. Chuck Moore said that during the off-season, the northern section is staffed full-time 24/7 by a total of six captains and 15 ocean lifeguard specialists. By the end of June, however, the staff will nearly double to 40 full-time and part-time lifeguards. He said “the department is still battling budget cuts and restrictions, but public safety will not be affected. There will still be a full complement to staff the lifeguard stands.”

Generally, increases to staffing levels begin the week most schools are out, which is June 13-19 this year. Capt. Moore said Memorial Day weekend is usually a “bit iffy weather-wise,” often with heavier marine layer conditions, and they generally don’t look for big crowds then. However, 407,000 people did visit Malibu’s beaches during the three-day holiday weekend. The department considers peak season to be from the Fourth of July through Labor Day.

“Eighty percent of our annual budget is spent in July and August,” Moore said.

Capt. Snyder said that any given time “staffing is determined by weather, crowds and surf size.” Extra help is on call, and called in order of seniority if needed.

Each summer, new and returning lifeguard recruits, many of them college students, fill in the temporary need for additional lifeguards during peak season. In recent years, some of the recruits lived in temporary housing trailers parked next to Zuma lifeguard headquarters because they needed to be nearby and couldn’t afford rent in the Malibu area.

However, Moore said, “There will be no trailers this year for temporary housing, although vans and campers will be allowed. It will look more professional. Most of the seasonal employees this year are local [within driving distance], as opposed to coming in from out of state or other parts of California, so they don’t need the trailers so much.”

Even with 21 lifeguard stands on Westward and Zuma beaches, the captains on duty at the lifeguard headquarters building remain highly vigilant to swimmers, large bus groups, and current ocean and weather conditions, always scanning the field of view even when on telephone or radio calls. They and most members of the permanent staff have experienced the satisfaction of saving lives, but also the unfortunate flip side of searching for drowning victims or being first on the scene of a fatal accident. The demeanor of the county lifeguard staff is much like that of a law enforcement agency-if rules aren’t enforced, people can die. Depending on the situation, they work with the U.S. Coast Guard, California Department of Fish and Game, and the county fire and Sheriff’s departments.

The lifeguards are charged with ocean rescues, assisting disabled boats or downed aircraft, providing emergency medical assistance to beachgoers, finding lost children, monitoring the ocean for environmental concerns, responding to boat or pier fires and ocean recovery of deceased victims. Capt. Roger Murray said that “eighty percent of the rescues [in Malibu] are swimmers caught in the riptides right off Zuma Beach. We try to move swimmers away from riptides.”

Snyder said that for safety reasons, lifeguards have the authority to designate certain areas of the ocean for swimming only, surfing only or kite surfing only. He said during the peak summer season, usually at noon (when all the towers are open), they designate the area between tower numbers one and 14 at Zuma Beach a “no surfing” zone. This is signaled when the lifeguard in each tower puts out a yellow flag with a black circle in the middle, referred to by surfers as the “black ball.” The “black ball” area is also announced by boat and beach vehicles over a public address system. Two orange flags outside of a tower mean that it is a designated swim area and surfers must stay outside of those flags.

Another reminder from Snyder is that groups of 50 or more people who plan to go to the beach together and get into the water must obtain a beach use permit through the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors Permit Office.