KEEPING track of the number of swimmers who invade California's public beaches in a year is not an exact science. But regular checking, according to Capt. Russ Walker of the County of Los Angeles Beaches and Harbors, puts the figure at somewhere between 70 million and 80 million.
Each year more than 5,000 of those swimmers, Walker says, are pulled from the water by lifeguards. Almost all of them who are treated for the experience leave the beach under their own power, physically none the worse.
"The quick response, before things have a chance to get serious, is our specialty," Walker explains. "Our lifeguard force [of whom 25 to 30 percent are women] is trained to recognize problems before they can develop into something more serious."
IF it were possible to wear out the lenses in a pair of binoculars, Los Angeles lifeguards would be running to the store twice a week in the summer. Their binoculars are as important to them as a plumber's friend is to a sanitary engineer.
"I know it sounds peculiar," continues Walker, a 27-year veteran of the system. "But people who suddenly decide to go swimming in their street clothes - shoes, too - are one of our biggest problem. First, their clothes get wet; then they get heavy. The next thing you know, they are struggling to remain afloat.
"Actually, there are all kinds of reasons why people get into trouble in the ocean, but it's usually because they overestimate their ability as swimmers. For example, we have dozens of signs that caution swimmers about the danger of riptide. However, most of them who get into trouble seem to think that those warnings are for somebody else."
The widely spaced wooden lifeguard stations on Santa Monica Beach, although elevated only about five feet above the sand and with a small deck in front, bear a superficial resemblance to guard towers in World War II-prisoner-of-war-camps.
Inside they are about as sparse and are used primarily to hold lifesaving equipment, medical gear, supplies, and the personal belongings of the lifeguard on duty. In the summer, there is often more than one.
There is also a telephone in case it becomes necessary to call headquarters, paramedics, or one of L.A. County's four-wheel-drive beach-patrol vehicles.
The ocean rescue of today, however, is safer than it was years ago, when things were mostly one-on-one. Modern lifeguards are spared some of the dangers of being pulled underwater by panic-stricken swimmers.
Instead of every rescue having to be a hands-on affair, lifeguards can swim out to those in distress and toss them a buoy attached to a rope. The swimmer grabs onto the handles on either side of the buoy and is pulled to safety.
"When we do have a drowning, it's almost always alcohol- or drug-related," Walker says. "While it's against the law to bring liquor or drugs to a beach, often on summer weekends you are dealing with thousands of people.... We simply do the best we can with the number of lifeguards we have, because you can't watch everybody."
Lifeguards here are also taught to be on the lookout for used syringes that somehow find their way into storm drains that eventually funnel them into the ocean.
Los Angeles County, to sustain its lifeguard program that consists of more than 100 full-time senior ocean lifeguards, recruits on a regular basis. There are perhaps 600 more lifeguards who work summers and part time en route to full-time jobs. Most of the guards recruited are college students who swim competitively.
The L.A. lifeguard system averages about 200 applicants a year. They take a written test, make a 1,000-meter (5/8ths of a mile) ocean swim, and have an intensive interview that focuses on decisionmaking and preparedness.
Most applicants, probably because they are such experienced swimmers, pass the test despite the fact that L.A.'s standards are perhaps the toughest anywhere.
Most of L.A.'s senior ocean lifeguards (who started at $12 an hour), get their jobs in their early 20s and stay well into their 50s. They work an eight-hour day in the winter and 10 hours a day in the summer. They can earn promotions to lieutenant, captain, assistant chief, and chief, with appropriate raises in pay.
Lifeguard tournaments are held nationwide, which include such events as run-swim-run, run-paddle-run, and a 600-yard paddle on a 12-foot-long rescue board. Competitors describe the experience as similar to 24 hours in a Marine boot camp.
Asked what lifeguards do on vacation, Walker replies: "Believe it or not, almost all of them go to the beach. But the attraction isn't swimming; it's surfing!"