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Quick, I need a (cheaper) lifeguard to rescue me!

June 22, 2011 |  6:30 am

Lifeguardguy OK, I admit it: I have a bad case of "lifeguard envy."

At first, it was just the usual things: They're fit, and good swimmers, and they get to work at the beach,where the view is great -- you get the picture.

Then came this:  The Los Angeles Times reported last week that some lifeguards are, shall we say, well compensated for their skills. As in: 

Municipal lifeguards start at around $60,000 a year, and pay escalates up to $115,000 at the supervisory level. Pensions are based, in part, on a lifeguard's final salary. In Newport Beach, the pay is even better, with some senior supervisors earning $150,000 a year, including overtime.

And that's got cash-strapped beach cities reconsidering their options, of course.

Newport Beach Councilwoman Leslie Daigle said the city can no longer afford paying them the same retirements as police and firefighters. One Newport Beach lifeguard recently retired at 51 with an annual pension of $108,000, plus medical benefits.

"They are more than generously compensated for a highly desirable job," Daigle said. "We would find qualified applicants for lifeguarding without" the top-end benefits.

Ah, there we have it. The old "we can find someone cheaper" argument.

This has turned up a lot lately in stories on government employees. For example, when The Times reported recently about firefighters' compensation, the comment board was full of criticism for what was seen as their generous pay and benefits.  Many insisted that plenty of people would do the job for less.

Which, when you think about it, is an interesting notion: When you're in a burning building or caught in a rip current and drowning, do you want the best person you can get to rescue you or the one who was willing to take a little less money to do the job?

Frankly, I'm tired of this race-to-the-bottom-on-wages talk. 

Let's cut to the chase. With lifeguards, at least, why don't we just ask: Do we need them at all?

The Times' story tells us why San Diego has lifeguards:

In 1918, the city became the first in the state to hire full-time lifeguards to patrol its beaches after 13 people drowned in one day in riptides off Ocean Beach.

OK, there's that.  Without lifeguards, people drown.

But in this land of the free and home of the brave (but apparently too few good swimmers), why is it the government's job to keep you from drowning?  Going to the beach and swimming is a voluntary activity.  Shouldn't you have to assume responsibility for your own safety?

Too harsh, you say?  Then why not let free enterprise ride to the rescue?  Good swimmers could stand on the sand, and if you start to drown, you could call out.  You and the would-be rescuers could then negotiate a price.  If you couldn't  stay above water, friends or family could do the negotiating for you.

Not very practical?

OK, heck, I don't know: Maybe we could just pay highly trained, dedicated and skilled people a living wage to do the job. And we could enjoy the beach.


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When employers exploit the economy

Given economic changes, is college worth it?

Contempt for firefighters won't solve L.A.'s budget mess

Economic crisis: Should the U.S. brace for European-style riots?

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: A lifeguard mans a tower in Newport Beach. Credit:  Christina House / For the Los Angeles Times

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