POOLE, ENGLAND — When Ned Dillon's pager beeps in the middle of a construction job in Arklow, Ireland, it's a signal for him to drop his tools and head for the sea.
Mr. Dillon is one of the more than 4,000 men and 200 women volunteers with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) who are on call to rescue those in peril off the coasts of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
The 223 RNLI stations dotted across Britain, aid commercial ships, pleasure craft, and swimmers in trouble. Crews have even delivered babies at sea. Occasionally, they venture inland to help people caught in flooding.
Last year these volunteers answered an average of 18 distress calls per week, assisting a total of 6,782 people in peril.
Dillon leans back on the rail of the sunlit deck of a 52-foot lifeboat as he recalls a recent rescue attempt.
"We got the call at about half-past two in the morning. A fishing boat had gone ashore on rocks about three miles out of our port of Arklow.
"There were gale-force winds, driving rain, and visibility was virtually zero. And then there was a large breaking sea running over the boat. The lifeboat was in danger of being thrown against the vessel that was on the rocks or hitting the rocks itself. It took four attempts to get the five-man crew off.
"Unfortunately, their boat was lost, but we got the men ashore safe and sound. Boats can be replaced but the men can't."
Recently, the RNLI celebrated its 175th birthday. The crowds thronging the quayside on several locations witnessed a massive parade by a flotilla of lifeboats from more than 50 countries, along with a spectacular air show by the Royal Air Force's Red Arrows stunt team.
All have come to pay tribute to the grandfather of all lifeboat organizations, which has saved more than 132,000 lives since its inception.
"Wherever you go in England, mention those magic letters RNLI, and people know exactly who you're talking about, where it is, what it does, why it does it," observes Bryan Tofield, toting a bucket in which to collect donations.
"Most of what we do is fairly mundane - towing yachts in, things like that - but occasionally you get a situation where there's no doubt that, without your intervention, someone would have drowned," says Chris Haw, a dentist and crew member.
It can be dangerous work: 437 RNLI crew members have lost their lives since 1824.
Mr. Haw recalls a narrow escape he had. "In one rescue I was to be put aboard a boat. I missed my footing and ended up being squashed between the two boats. Luckily I was washed aboard the casualty boat and was helicoptered off with only a bit of bruising."
There is only one lifeboat station in Britain whose geographic location necessitates a full-time crew, based on the remote Spurn Point Peninsula at Humber in Yorkshire.
The others rely on volunteers, although each lifeboat station does employ one full-time mechanic to do the necessary maintenance and preparation on the boats.
Lifeboat crews receive rigorous training at one of the RNLI's two training centers, or from one of the eight caravan-like mobile training units staffed with full-time instructors who travel to the lifeboat stations.
Remarkably, less than 10 percent of the crews come from a maritime background, yet their professionalism is highly regarded by other lifeboat agencies.
"They are very well trained and they have all the best equipment. They're the only people who go out in the very bad weather," says Peter Probut of the British government-funded Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which coordinates rescues with the RNLI.
The coastguard is one of several agencies that assist with the Sea Safety Initiative, which the RNLI designed to increase public awareness of safety procedures and accident prevention at sea.
What motivates volunteer crewmen?
Ned Dillon's reply is typical of responses on the subject. "When you actually save someone's life and when you see the relief that is on somebody's face when you actually get them on board, and they're safe, it's a wonderful feeling. There's no other job that can ever compare to it."
The secret to the RNLI's success lies not just its warriors on the front lines. Equally important is the fund-raising capability of the RNLI's 250,000 members spread over 1,600 branches. Surprisingly, support isn't limited just to the coastline areas, but extends deep into the heart of the country.
One of these members, Frances Zisimides, explains, "Let's face it, you have these bands of men who are willing to risk their lives, and the least you and I can do is to give them support."
Like the lifeboatsmen themselves, members of the fund-raising committees also seem to appreciate the sense of community that they get as part of a team.
"It's a bit of a club. It's a big camaraderie thing," observes Rob Warrington, a training instructor.
The institution's spirit and culture seem to be fueled by a sense that the RNLI is special among philanthropic groups.
Indeed, supporters take great pride that the RNLI is now the only major British charity that does not receive any central or local government subsidy.
Mike Woodroffe, deputy chief of operations, highlights the incentive to remain cost-effective as being one of the major advantages of remaining private. "We do pride ourselves in saying that the administrative side of things is only about 10 pence in every pound we raise."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society