Inside the Beach Patrol

Commitment to Professional Service Is Beach Haven Beach Patrol’s Key to Effectiveness

By DAVID BIGGY | Aug 14, 2019
Photo by: David Biggy Beach Haven Beach Patrol lifeguards go through a training exercise prior to dispersing for their assigned beaches as Chief Mike Lawrence observes.

Beach Haven — Editor’s Note: Through Aug. 21, Gina Scala and David Biggy explore the uniqueness, flair and prestige of each of the six beach patrols on Long Beach Island, and why visitors and residents can feel safe throughout the summer, in this six-week feature series, “Inside the Beach Patrols.”

For decades, before Emily Wilson established a Red Cross station in Beach Haven, lifeguards, commonly referred to as “beach masters,” were not public servants. Rather, they were employed solely by two major hotels in town, the Engleside and the Baldwin.

In July 1927, Wilson not only set up the first formal emergency station on the boardwalk at Coral Street, she also hired several lifeguards as part of the operation – the beginnings of the Beach Haven Beach Patrol.

A lot has changed within the confines of the “Queen City” since then, including the beach patrol. But the one thing that hasn’t changed is the hordes of visitors who show up every summer.

“We see thousands of people on our beaches every week,” said Beach Haven Beach Patrol Chief Mike Lawrence, whose crew mans nine beaches amid nearly 2 miles of sand at the south end of Long Beach Island. “We have a lot more turnover than most beaches on the Island. The goal every day is that nobody dies in the water.”

But whether it’s along the beaches of 12th or Centre streets, Norwood or Iroquois avenues, making sure any visitor lives to see another day is easier said than done with a patrol of 40 lifeguards and the possibility of hundreds of adults and children in the Atlantic at any given point from the end of June through Labor Day.

“We have a large, diverse crowd of people who come to our beaches every day,” said fifth-year guard Connor Metz, one of the “senior” guards with BHBP. “Where I’m normally stationed on Norwood, we see a lot of regulars and a bunch associated with Little Egg Harbor Yacht Club. But we don’t have nearly as many visitors as Centre Street, where there’s a lot more parking and activity in town. I see 70 or 80 people on a busy day. Centre Street gets hundreds every day. Some days, we need a lot of eyes to watch the ocean, and it’s really hard to keep a watch on everything. But somehow, we do it.”

Despite its relatively small size, Lawrence’s squad manages to keep beachgoers and ocean enthusiasts safe from potential death. Still, the rescues are many, and his guards are always on constant alert for problems.

“Back, I guess, four or five years ago, the summer after our replenishment by the Army Corps of Engineers, we had 14 broken necks, a couple of CPR rescues and countless dislocations because of the heavy and big shore break that developed because of the replenishment,” he said. “We have a lot going on here, and to serve the public well we have to be good at what we do.”

In addition to its Lifeguard-in-Training program, headed up by veteran guard Chris Esibill, rookies are prepared with a 40-hour training course before sitting on a bench. From there, Capt. Steve McNamara and lieutenants Meghan and Courtney Marro continue to work with the crew on all the fundamentals necessary to perform under pressure – from CPR training and first aid to communication protocol and emergency backup. Every day, before his guards disperse for their assigned beaches, Lawrence puts them through a training exercise designed to maintain and hone their practical skills.

“Everybody is trained well enough and in such a high manner that each individual guard is able to handle any situation,” said Meghan Marro, whom Lawrence refers to as “the glue who holds us together,” a jack-of-all-trades who takes care of the payroll, annual CPR training and many other things. “Our entire patrol comes to work every day really focused on helping the public and keeping people safe.”

But beyond well-trained employees focused on public safety, Lawrence expects the utmost in professionalism, even from the youngest among his crew. That means always being courteous and treating beach visitors with respect in every possible way, doing everything to the best of their ability, taking responsibility for their actions and being honest about their personal conduct.

“There’s nowhere to hide out here on the beach,” said Lawrence, a special education math teacher in West Orange during the months he’s not at BHBP headquarters. “Kids come into our patrol and they know how to swim, but it’s our job to make sure they’re elevated to a professional level.

“When you boil it down, this is a job about life and death, and things can happen in a split second. They have to be ready to work hard, be alert to all things and conscientious of a lot of details. So when the crap hits the fan, everything they know is muscle memory, and there’s no delay in how they react to a serious situation.”

Marro said the reward for such professionalism and effectiveness is a happy customer base.

“By doing our job the right way, we give everybody the chance to go home happy,” she said. “This is an enjoyable job, and I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t. And part of my enjoyment of this job is that I can bring joy to the lives of others. If mom’s screaming on the beach and you bring her kid in on a board, you just made them happy. If you just did CPR and kept a man alive, you just gave that entire family a lot of joy. When we show up, it’s different every day. But it’s a joy to serve the public and keep them safe.”

Metz reminds himself frequently that he and the rest of the BHBP squad are public servants first.

“We’re willing to go the extra mile for somebody,” he said. “We work for the taxpayers of the town and the people we’re guarding who pay our salaries, so we always go that one step farther to do whatever we can for the people we’re serving. We have a tight-knit group whose only goal is to serve.”

Even if it means working overtime – for which Lawrence has had to gain the town’s approval on occasion – during particularly crowded days when the ocean is not the most swimmer friendly.

“Last July 4, we were scheduled to pack up at 5 p.m., but the beaches still had a lot of people on them and the conditions weren’t great,” Lawrence said. “We couldn’t walk off the beach with that many people there and the chance somebody would go down after we left. I called to ask permission for us to work overtime, and we ended up staying out there until 8 p.m.”

This year, Beach Haven Beach Patrol guards regularly work 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., something town officials sought to do with input from Lawrence. He believes it was the right move.

“We have a lot of responsibility on our shoulders,” he said. “We can’t be on the beach 24 hours a day, but it’s a concern when it’s time for us to leave and there’s still a lot of people out there. You never want to get that call after hours that somebody went down.”

Interestingly, one of the unique aspects of BHBP is the provision of EMS First Responder duties alongside the borough’s police department. Two weeks ago, McNamara, Marro and senior guard Brooke Turner saved an individual utilizing their CPR training at Surflight Theatre, several blocks from headquarters.

“We don’t just guard the ocean,” Lawrence said. “We’re on the lookout for problems all along the beach and even in town. We have a wonderful relationship with the police department and public works, and we work really well with them to serve the public. To me, that’s more rewarding than any medal or trophy from a competition.”

Lawrence said when the season ends and it’s time to pack up and close the doors to BHBP’s headquarters in mid-September, he does so with a sense of satisfaction.

“We can be proud of what we do, knowing that every year, as professionals and part of an emergency service agency, we’ve done our best to ensure the safety of everybody who comes here,” he said. “I like when we get compliments, or an ovation when we perform a rescue. It’s great and our patrol deserves that praise, but it’s not why we do this. We’re just here to help people, and that’s our main focus.”

Beach Haven Beach Patrol, By the Numbers

Area of Beach Space Patrolled – 2 miles

Number of Guarded Beaches – 9

Number of Lifeguards Employed – 40

Most Experienced Lifeguard’s Years of Service – 22

Year Established – 1927

Number of LIT Recruits – 35

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