Lifeguard FAIL

This weekend I’m visiting southern California. My first stop after landing was a bonfire on the beach. While getting the fire going and cooking some hot dogs, I noticed a regular pattern of Lifeguard vehicles driving back and forth. Meh.

A while later I notice a change. One of these all-wheel-drive eco-friendly SUV’s is clipping across the beach on a different path at a much faster pace. Maybe something is up… but he’s not running code 3, so maybe he’s just in a hurry to get somewhere. A few minutes later another unit comes screaming down the beach, this time lights and sirens blaring. I know each vehicle has only one guard in it, and I’m presuming that they don’t have much additional medical training. I mosey over a couple hundred feet to the incident to poke my head in to see if the situation warrants offering assistance. Their patient is seated in the sand, sitting up on his own, answering questions. One guard is taking a blood pressure, the other asking questions. I have already made my “from the door” assessment of not sick/not hurt.

I’ve had multiple incidents where Lifeguards have identified themselves on a scene to insist they help, or they passed judgment on my ability to provide care (“You’re not from the fire department? When are the *real* EMT’s getting here?”). I had to resist every urge to reverse the tables for once and say “I’m an EMT, I can help!”

Anyway, I digress. Fast forward 45 minutes.

Yes 45 minutes later they are still on-scene. In the distance I hear the dulcet tones of the federal Q2. An engine?… And a rescue? Are they coming…here? No…really…now?

Why yes…45 minutes later ALS backup was called for. I also see a Coast Guard helicopter in the distance, closing in rapidly along the shore-line. Was my assessment that far off the mark? The helicopter banks over the incident and continues along the beach – apparently just a coincidence. Fire Medics were on-scene for 5 minutes and then left.

It’s understandable, being with a patient where something just doesn’t feel right, you watch them and wait for them to either get worse or get better, eventually establishing whether you will release or transport. We’ve all done it – or at least I have. 45 minutes is a while to wait for such a decision, but I’ll go along with it. Having had an ALS evaluation, I imagine our punter will be on his way any moment now.

Fast forward 60 minutes.

Yes, now the lifeguards have been on-scene for almost 2 hours.  I hear multiple sirens in the distance converging from different directions. Two stations are now responding. I meander over again just because I want to hear the exchange between the Lifeguard and the Medics. Our patient is now laying in the sand covered in a blanket. The medic walks over and simply declares “I don’t care, this time we’re taking him! Get him on the backboard!”

I know hindsight is 2020 and I wasn’t actually on-scene evaluating the patient – but as a trained observer it seemed like this call was full of all sorts of fail.

Lifeguards provide absolutely life savings extrication and rescue manoeuvres. They can perform BLS care early in an incident when it has the best chance of savings someone’s life. But…that’s about all they do. Lifeguards are not God’s gift to emergency response. More than once I’ve been on a scene and had someone bound up to declare “I’m a Lifeguard, I can help” or “I’ll take it from here guys.” I actually had one guy try to muscle in between me and a patient. A quick glare and he was put in his place by the officer on scene.

The second time a Lifeguard did this to me on scene a cop said “Well does it looks like he’s drowning? Back off, Baywatch.” I almost felt bad for him.


Mat Goebel
Research Fellow

My research interests include EMS, EKG, STEMI, cybersecurity, data viz, ML, and NLP.