Todd Rapp’s career as a lifeguard started at a water park in 1994. Today, 26 years later, he is a firefighter and part-time beach lifeguard in Vero Beach, Florida.
What do you love about being a lifeguard?
The lifestyle of simplicity and being outside on the Ocean. When I was young, I sold my car, bought a bike and made sure I lived close to my workplace. Everything I needed was in a 2-mile radius of where I lived. All I needed to work was a pair of shorts and a whistle. No suits, no fancy car and no need to buy stuff to impress others. I could be myself, stay in shape and keep patrons safe.
What are the different challenges of being a lifeguard at a pool, water park or the beach?
Pools are mostly a static environment, as the pool dimensions don’t change, the water temperature stays consistent and water isn’t moving about, except to the filters and back. The only thing that changes at pools is the patrons and the activities they are doing. Water parks pose a challenge in that there are large numbers of people, and the water is always moving, for the most part. The only constant is, like a pool, the dimensions remain the same, and the water usually moves the same day in and day out.
The ocean is a very dynamic environment. The tides move in and out, changing the depth and dimensions of the beach. The surf can vary greatly from being very small to very large, as well as coming in from different directions on different days. This can create hazards for swimmers, such as rip currents, shore break and strong currents moving along the coast. The winds can change direction and cause issues. The sand moves around from day to day, changing the dimensions of the beach. Marine life, such as jellyfish, Man O’ War, sea wasps and sea lice can cause health issues to beach patrons. In addition, beaches are an open area with no entry gates or fences, and children can get separated from their parents quite easily.
What specific training do you need to be a lifeguard?
There are many different certifications by different entities/groups/organizations available for lifeguards. The American Red Cross has many programs for pools and limited water parks, but won’t approach open water. United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) is the governing body for open water lifeguards. The standard qualification includes being able to swim 500 meters in less than 10 minutes. All lifeguards are trained in CPR, first aid and use of an Automated External Defibrillator. Each agency has its own standards, which may be more stringent. They also have some type of training academy to complete prior to being allowed out on the beach.
Have you ever had to save someone’s life? If so, can you share details?
The goal of a lifeguard is to prevent a rescue from happening in the first place. This comes from experience in seeing potential incidents before they happen and educating patrons along the way before they get into a bad situation. Issues still occur and patrons still find themselves needing help. Sometimes a swimmer may have a non-drowning issue such as a medical problem or marine sting. Sometimes things are out of a lifeguard’s control, unpreventable. I have made countless rescues over the years in all types of conditions, from grabbing small children just off the beach who get pulled out, rescuing multiple victims caught in a rip current in very large surf, to driving rescue boats through inlets to rescue people from their capsized vessel. The grimmest moments have been those that occurred away from a lifeguard, outside a guarded area.
What is the most common dangerous thing you see people do around pools/oceans that they shouldn’t that could save their life?
People don’t know what they don’t know. I believe a person’s overconfidence or ignorance of a given situation is the most dangerous thing. Peer pressure can play a part, whether it is coaxing a friend to jump off a pier or the high dive they have never been on, or to venture out into rough seas with no help around. Most people that I have helped had no idea that danger existed or was pushed too far by their peers. Drugs and alcohol can also play a role in these things. Always swim near a lifeguard, and know your limits.
When staring out into the water, what are lifeguards looking for?
The ocean is a dynamic environment and can look very different over the course of just a few hours. Lifeguards can spot newly formed rip currents, approaching fog banks, incoming thunderstorms and marine life that could cause harm. We are always watching people, making sure they aren’t about to unknowingly put themselves in danger and doing our best to prevent incidents from happening. A dry lifeguard is a good lifeguard. An experienced lifeguard can spot a person in distress by their body position in the water, the effectiveness of the work they are trying to put in to stay about the water and the look on their face.
What is your favorite/least favorite part of being a lifeguard?
I love the simplicity of the lifestyle. While the pay isn’t great, being able to work on the water 40 hours a week has its benefits. I rode my bike to work for many years, leaving my vehicle at home. For part of the time, I didn’t even own a vehicle. I made it a point to live frugally, eat well and stay in good shape. Living simple seemed to benefit my mental health as well. While being a lifeguard means maintaining good physical health, there is always something new to learn about your environment. Every lifeguard brings something different to the profession. When I was young, I depended on my strong swimming background and learning from the senior guards to be competent. Over the years, while I don’t swim or run as fast, my mind is sharper and I can see potential incidents sooner. Even though I only lifeguard a few times a month now, I have turned into the senior guard responsible for helping the young guys learn.
What specific skills do lifeguards have in addition to CPR?
Most lifeguards are trained in basic first aid, and other lifeguards are EMTs. Being a strong swimmer is a must. Knowledge of the ocean, currents, weather and marine life is necessary. Ocean lifeguards must be comfortable where others aren’t. This means being able to punch through rough surf, make a rescue and return to shore with the victim(s). In the ocean or open water, the use of swim fins, rescue boards, personal watercraft and rescue boats are all utilized. Communication is also a necessary skill. Being able to let others know what type of emergency you have, where you are and what resources you need are crucial to having a good outcome. I have always said that lifeguards are on par with other public safety departments such as fire and police. Training and accountability have increased throughout the years. They are called to respond to help people who have found themselves in a situation they cannot escape without help. In some cases, they are a person’s last hope.
Is a lifeguard’s territory the water or the whole beach?
Lifeguards can tend to any issue on the beach, which they are trained for. Lost children, helping people up off the ground after losing their balance at the water’s edge, alerting the police when necessary and providing first aid are a few of the non-water related issues lifeguards tend to. Many career lifeguards have extensive medical training, some being emergency medical technicians, and can render care during medical emergencies until the fire department or paramedics arrive. They are truly first responders, a link in the chain of survival.
What is the craziest situation you have ever been in?
Late on a cloudy day with stiff winds blowing away from the shore and out to sea, I returned to the lifeguard stand from rinsing and storing the PWC (personal watercraft) for the day. A few minutes later, a gentleman came running to my tower, saying the six kids he was responsible for were getting blown off the beach in their rental kayaks half a mile down the beach outside the guarded area. After retrieving the PWC from the garage, I spotted three kayaks spread out over a large distance, about half a mile offshore. With two children in each kayak, it would take three trips to retrieve all of them. After rescuing the first two, the supervisor gave me a heading to the second kayak, now close to a mile offshore. After rescuing those two children, my supervisor gave me a heading to the last kayak, which was only visible a couple of times a minute, due to the stiff offshore winds creating waves moving away from land. I picked up a second lifeguard for another set of eyes and remained in contact with the supervisor on the lifeguard tower. It took a couple long runs out to sea, but finally was able to locate the last kayak, over 2 1⁄2 miles offshore. The waves were 2 to 4 feet out there, driving the kids out to sea. I believe the Coast Guard had been alerted and was in the process of readying a search. It took quite a while to get the last two back to shore. Everyone was accounted for. Everyone was safe. Looking back, we literally found two needles in a haystack.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Visit USLA.org for beach safety tips and a career path to becoming an open water lifeguard. Contact your local pool, water park, or beach patrol for specific career paths. Ask them about junior lifeguard programs for children. Seek out websites and social media links to the facility or beach you plan going. Most will update conditions daily.
Have you ever rescued someone from a shark bite?
Yes. Me! People always inquire about sharks when arriving at the beach. I guess Shark Week on the Discovery Channel has fueled their curiosities and fears. While Florida is the shark bite capital of the world, only a handful have been fatal since records have been kept. Most injuries are limited to the soft tissues. I have only helped one person with a shark bite. It was a simple case of mistaken identity, and the injuries were minor. Surfing near a lifeguard helped me, in 2004, as I had my own run-in with a shark. While surfing in South Florida, I fell off a wave and tumbled around underwater. I felt a very sharp sensation on my right foot. When I came to the surface, I saw the foamy water was all red. I grabbed my board, rode the next wave to shore, hopped up the beach on one foot and laid down with my foot in the air. The lifeguard tended to me, irrigated the foot which was a mangled mess and controlled the bleeding. Fire Rescue came and transported me to the hospital where I went into a three-hour surgery to repair the foot. Compared to most shark bites in Florida, my injuries were on the more severe side but never life-threatening. Even though I became one of the very few to suffer a shark bite, I refuse to let the incident deter my love for the ocean. Sixteen years later, I still surf and swim in the ocean as much as possible. My three kids usually surf with me, as well. We take precautions as not to surf when baitfish are present, to stay away from waters known to have large shark populations and avoid the waters when the sharks are in the midst of migrating. I am playing in their yard — best to give them room.