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Lifeguards: Tough, thankless job

STORY BY BY JOSEPH W. FENTON, (Week of June 30, 2011)
Photo: Lifeguards Erik Toomsoo and Tim Capra

Nathan Rieck does not unwind when he takes his children to North Beach.

While there, his head will move back and forth – not like someone watching a Venus Williams tennis match, but slower, more in the manner of a man following a couple of octogenarians leisurely batting the ball over the net.

“I can’t relax at the beach,” says Rieck. “I’m always scanning.”

Tim Capra is the same way. “I can’t enjoy the beach on a day off,” he says.

Erik Toomsoo is even blunter. “When my kids go down the beach, I’m Mr. Paranoid,” he says.

These men are three of the 16 Vero Beach lifeguards who monitor the city’s pool and three beaches 365 days a year – and who will soon be tested. The busiest times on South, Humiston and Jaycee beaches are summer holiday weekends and one of the most hectic is just a day away.

“Some folks will be sleeping on picnic tables at 7 a.m. so they can get them for the day,” says Rieck of summer holiday weekends.

“You are on the edge of your seat all the time,” says Capra, who expects to see many visitors this weekend with little experience in the waters off city beaches.

“It boggles my mind the number of people who have never been to the ocean.”

The lifeguards say it is tough – if not impossible – to leave the job on days off because what is recreation for most people is work and responsibility for them.

In Rieck’s case, he’s made two North Beach rescues in recent years because he paid attention to what was going on in the water. “It doesn’t happen all the time,” he says of the rescues.

“There’s an old lifeguard saying that once you get sand in your shoes it’s hard to get it out,” says Rieck, 42, in his 16th year as a Vero Beach lifeguard and captain of the city unit. 

“Before I came here it was pretty much a job,” says Rieck, who likes the professionalism of the Vero Beach lifeguard team and that’s what keeps him here. 

“If I wasn’t here, I don’t think I’d be in Florida,” says Rieck, who lives in Sebastian.

Capra, 32, says the public safety aspect of being a lifeguard drew him to the job. “I like helping people,” he says. “Let’s face it; I’m not going to be a doctor.”

The three city beaches attract about 40,000 people a month. On a recent weekday morning, Toomsoo and Capra stand at the foot of the South Beach guard tower.

A light breeze ripples over the sand, masking the temperature that’s expected to hit the mid-90s.

Only a handful of people dot the beach’s guarded area and Capra trots off to tell two women to move an umbrella back from the water because it’s blocking the lifeguards’ views. The women apparently missed the big, nearby sign that cautions “no umbrellas past this point.”

On a typical weekday about 400 people will enjoy South Beach, a number that jumps to 700 or 800 in the guarded area on weekends, says Toomsoo.

Since the economy tanked, lifeguards say more people are at the beach, locals doing “staycations” and families spending spend time in the condo with grandma and grandpa.

Like the changing tide, Toomsoo notes the crowd shifts most days too. It’s older in the morning while Hispanic families typically arrive in late afternoon.

Lifeguards hunt for lost kids, and field constant questions, almost like travel aides at airport or mall kiosks.

 “Where can I catch the bridge to cross this river?”

“What lake is that?”

“Is this the same ocean that goes to New Jersey?”

“Where can I get a good deal on a timeshare?”

The questions don’t stop there. “Where can I eat? Where do I get beach chairs? Where can I stay? Where can I rent beach umbrellas?”

Although the guards see the humor to the questions, the job – which pays about $15.50 an hour – has a serious side.

Rieck and Capra saved an older Polish tourist two years ago who broke his neck body surfacing; it was a first for both of them.

“He was not breathing and didn’t have a pulse,” says Capra, noting five people including the two lifeguards and two nurses enjoying a day at the beach got him out of the water and resuscitated him.

“We worked on him and brought him back to life,” says Capra. The rescue was a first in his career.

”They sent us a nice letter. Since being a lifeguard at the age of 16, I had never brought someone back from the other side. You train for this one moment.”

Capra says he appreciated the thank-you letter.  “You can go through your whole career and pretty much never be thanked.”

The lifeguards say there appears to be an embarrassment factor when they help people or a child when a parent isn’t watching and a thank you isn’t on the beach visitor’s mind.

Capra brushes that off. “The job is part recreation and part public safety,” he says. “We are ambassadors for the area. My job is to make their day as pleasant as possible. It’s a hard job.”

In the case of the Polish body surfer, an older man, the resuscitation caused his emotions to roil for days, Capra says. “You just got from the lowest low to the highest high,” he says. “It took two or three days to grasp what happened.”

Rieker says he was involved in two unsuccessful resuscitations before the Polish swimmer.

Resuscitations, for the most part, are the high-end of a lifeguard’s career.

Most lifeguards spend time each day on preventive measures, talking to mothers about keeping an eye on kids because of the nature of the beach and its drop off, or warning folks about body surfing or jellyfish, says Toomsoo, 42, who moved to barrier island from New Jersey a few years ago and is one of the newer lifeguards in the unit with 18 months on the beach.

“The beach is associated with fun, sun, surf, vacations and good times,” Toomsoo notes. “People travel thousands of miles and spend a lot of money just to come to Vero. 

“The last thing many of them are thinking about is safety and many lack the experience of what the ocean is capable of doing.  The beach to most is nature’s waterpark.”

“Unlike the jobs of police and fire/rescue where the public understands the dangers inherent to those professions, lifeguarding is seen as a lifestyle rather than one of public safety,” Toomso says. “Lifeguards are constantly watching the water and trying to prevent one’s vacation from becoming a nightmare.”

Still relatively new to his job, Toomsoo recalls his first day. “After eight hours of wind and sun, I went home exhausted.”

People, they say, aren’t as aware as they should be of the nature around them.

Toomsoo recalled a surprised Georgia family’s reaction when some manatees swam by. “I’ve never seen a family get out of the water so fast,” he says.

Capra recalled one particularly ungallant visitor.”  Some people are oblivious to what’s swimming by them,” he says, relating the story of a manatee swimming by a couple.

“The man just picked up his wife and put her between the manatee and himself,” he recalls with a laugh.

The lifeguard unit is part of the city recreation department and the guards worry about what’s ahead – having seen budget cuts from about $600,000 to $525,000 this year.

“As our city budget feels the pressure of cutbacks and layoffs, some look at the lifeguards and question their necessity,” says Toomsoo.

“Our department won’t get noticed until a tragedy befalls a visitor or a beachgoer is plucked out of a rip.  Our job is to prevent accidents and we’re doing a pretty good job of keeping tragedy out of the papers.”