“Swim near a lifeguard,” warns Pensacola Beach lifeguard and PJC student Alex Johnson, 17. Johnson and his friend Luis Berrios, 20, are just two of 44 lifeguards that work at Pensacola Beach, keeping their eyes on swimmers and saving lives.
Johnson has been a lifeguard for two years and is the youngest guard at the beach; Berrios, a former PJC dual-enrollment student, has been a lifeguard for the past four years.
Though being a lifeguard can be stressful at times, Berrios and Johnson both wouldn’t trade their jobs for anything. “It’s the best job ever,” says Berrios.
So what exactly does it take to become a Pensacola Beach lifeguard? According to Johnson, “it takes athletic ability—at least very good swimming ability—and being able to handle stressful situations and emergency situations, calm and collectedly.”
However, actually landing a job as a lifeguard requires a little more. One must first acquire an American Red Cross lifeguard certification by undergoing basic CPR and lifeguard training.
Lifeguard applicants then have to pass two physical tests: a 600-yard swim in a pool in less than 10 minutes, and a 1.5 mile run in under 12 minutes.
If the applicant is offered a job, he or she must then pass 40 hours of paid training before being guaranteed a position. Training certifies a lifeguard as a First Responder.
This means the lifeguards are the first to respond to an emergency. They assess the severity of the accident and take appropriate action, such as calling Emergency Medical Services if necessary. “We’re trained to do pretty much everything in first aid below sticking IVs in people,” explains Berrios.
Johnson says once all the hurdles and training are passed, it’s definitely worth the effort. His favorite perks of life guarding are “$13 an hour, and sitting on the beach, relaxing and getting a tan every day.”
Berrios and Johnson also enjoy jumping off the pier with their fellow guards. “It’s illegal for the public to jump off the pier, but the lifeguards have the privilege of jumping off of the pier as part of their training,” Johnson says. “We’re also allowed to do it in groups for fun.”
According to Berrios, pier-jumping and surfing are both common after-work activities. But being a Pensacola Beach lifeguard isn’t all just fun and games. Lifeguards have to make rescues on a regular basis. In fact, according to the Santa Rosa Island Authority public safety director, Bob West, guards make 400 rescues in an average summer season.
Johnson and Berrios described a couple of their most serious rescues. “We had a jet ski collision between a 27-year-old man and a 12-year-old kid,” Johnson reveals. “I ended up going out to the scene on a boat….I responded to the 27-year-old man who was in the water with a life jacket on, but had obviously suffered a very bad spinal injury and had lacerations all over his face.”
Johnson and his fellow guards brought the man to shore, stabilized him, and immediately sent him to the hospital in a Life Flight helicopter.
Berrios has also had his fair share of life saving: “Last summer, this other lifeguard and I pulled out these two guys in front of The Dock. Neither of them knew how to swim and they got pulled out in a rip current….The guy I pulled out would have drowned. When I got to him he had just gone under. I had to pretty much dig him out of the water and bring him to shore.”
Johnson says rip currents are the most common danger at Pensacola Beach. “We actually have some of the most dangerous rip currents in the United States. They pop up all over the [Santa Rosa] island,” he explains.
Berrios and Johnson both have this warning to convey to swimmers: “Listen to the lifeguards.” They claim that many accidents occur because of swimmers who ignore the warnings of the lifeguards.
Swimmers who don’t heed the warnings of the guards are Johnson’s number one pet peeve. “People will think they’re the strongest swimmer they know and that they’ll be fine. Whether they are or not is a moot point. The problem with people thinking they’re the exception to the rule is other people who can’t swim as well will see them and decide to go out [into the water], and might end up in a rip current or something. It’s happened before,” he says.
But, despite all the dangers, Johnson and Berrios agree life guarding is one of the most rewarding jobs they could have. “You get the satisfaction of knowing you saved someone’s life, and that’s a very rewarding feeling to have,” Johnson explains.
Of course, getting to flirt with cute girls doesn’t hurt either. “We do most of the hitting-on,” jokes Berrios. “Know what I’m saying?”