Inside the Beach Patrols

Surf City’s Equally-Trained Men and Women Assure Public Safety

By DAVID BIGGY | Jul 31, 2019
Photo by: David Biggy VIGILANT: Surf City Beach Patrol lifeguard Anna Esposito monitors the ocean at Eighth Street.

Surf City — Editor’s Note: From July 17 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.”

Within a small office designated for the Surf City Beach Patrol, Mark Dileo every year tapes a set of laminated sheets to the stand-up cabinet along the left wall. It’s something he has been doing for many years since he took over as captain in 1992, after he started using United States Lifesaving Association protocols as a basis for operating his crew.

On those sheets are the dozens of items Dileo’s lifeguards are expected to know and utilize – from understanding environmental conditions to employing correct methods of communication, using proper rescue techniques and procedures, to keeping records and reporting, and recognizing when preventative measures need to be used – within their daily practices on the beach.

“My main goal is to make sure everybody gets home for dinner safely, and all our guards know this,” said Dileo, now in his 35th year with SCBP. “The ocean is dangerous, even in normal conditions. It’s a force of nature that doesn’t differentiate the people in it. It doesn’t care if you’re a man or woman, older or younger. And there’s a reason we have lifeguards on the beach watching everything. We’re all on the same page, and we’re all looking out for the beach patrons of Surf City.”

Protecting the public is a role Dileo takes so seriously, he has made many changes, both subtle and drastic, during the past 27 summers. He doesn’t take credit for many of them – he has no difficulty recognizing others’ contributions and readily admits to being wrong about some things when considering ideas and initiatives by those working under his leadership. But he does take great pride in the strides his patrol has taken over the decades.

“When I first started, we had 31 full-time lifeguards working six days a week from the beginning of summer to the end, and no part-time guards,” he said. “Now we have 40 full-time and 15 part-time guards. When I started, we had three women on the patrol, and now we have almost a 50/50 split. We had two or three rescue boards back then. Now we have 20 or 22. We had one rescue boat. Now we have three, and we’re about to get another one. From an equipment and personnel standpoint, those are major changes.

“But in terms of training, there was almost none when I started, and none of it was written down. It used to be you’d have a guard and you give him a buoy and send him out to watch the water. Now, we don’t just watch the water. We know how to survey the water. We know what to look for – swimmer observations, dry-land observations, the physiology of drowning, weather, wave formations and the types of waves, what causes currents. There’s a lot our guards are supposed to know and why those things are important.”

For certain, many of New Jersey’s beach patrols have gone through similar changes in recent decades. Lifesaving simply isn’t the same as it was in yesteryear, after all. Yet inside the daily operation that is Surf City Beach Patrol, Dileo and his lieutenants have developed a more personable, engaging approach to serving the public. They refer to beachgoers mostly as “patrons” – customers of the beach they enjoy. SCBP management strives every day to make sure the customers are being treated right, with the utmost respect and understanding.

“I’ve been coming to Surf City beaches since I was 8 years old. I grew up spending my summers on 18th Street,” said Collette Pretre, one of the patrol’s three lieutenants, who had a major influence during her 23 years. “In my teens, I really got a glimpse of what it meant to be a Surf City lifeguard. They engaged with their patrons, always made us feel welcome on the beach, like it was our home and they were there to get to know us as we spent our summers with them.

“We take very seriously how we communicate with each other and the public. Being friendly and engaging helps our patrons have a positive experience. It’s easy to just bark orders at people. But we want them to understand why we want them to be safe, and we communicate that to our patrons every day.”

Of course, keeping patrons safe is reliant on the training each lifeguard goes through. For Dileo, those measures are not only exhaustive but also highly specific. Pretre and fellow lieutenants Ryan Bonanni and Connor McMenamin are the ones responsible for making sure all the guards are on the same page with training and reporting to Dileo things that may need adjustment, depending on the strengths and weaknesses among the guards.

“Our No. 1 priority is protecting the public,” Pretre said. “We all do the same job here. Everybody does the same workout in the morning and goes through all the same training protocols. Everybody approaches a rescue the same way. The ideal is that we all do everything the same. Because the mom whose child needs to be rescued doesn’t care if you’re the best rower on the squad or if it’s your first day on the job. She doesn’t care if you’re male or female. She just wants her child rescued and safe.”

Dileo’s biggest concern when devising the weekly schedule and setting up nine groups of guards on the 15 beaches they oversee on a daily basis is how each individual serving the public complements the other on the lifeguard stand.

“We want the strengths to fill each other’s gaps,” he said. “Maybe you have a woman who’s 100 pounds and a really good swimmer, and she can get that buoy out to somebody 30 seconds faster than the 200-pound football player sitting with her. Their skills and abilities are a good match. And I take a lot of time to figure out who’s the best pair to put on a certain beach.

“In general, men and women have strengths and weaknesses that complement each other and make a stronger unit when they work together. If the woman guard can get the buoy out to somebody faster and the guy can pull in both his partner and the victim, that just works out better. We use the strengths of our guards to their fullest advantage in serving the public.”

That is where the Surf City Beach Patrol has made its biggest strides under Dileo’s watch – not just employing more women to be lifeguards, but also training them exactly the same. Not surprisingly, that intricate balance among the patrol staff has paid big dividends in competition, something Dileo refers to as an additive for a “full lifeguarding experience.”

Somewhat surprisingly is how that aspect of the SCBP came to be. Back in the late 1990s or early 2000s – Pretre couldn’t remember exactly when, despite it being a pivotal moment in the patrol history – she and Dileo had a “knock-down, drag-out” encounter, after hours, while the two lived across from each other in an Island apartment building.

“Lavallette had a mixed tournament and I had asked Mark if we could send our women to it. And he and I had a really ‘extensive discussion’ about it,” she recalled. “I gave Mark all the reasons why we not only should be competing but also why it was good for the entire patrol. Our women were capable. We were strong. We wanted to do it. For so long, the opportunities for women to compete in tournaments were very limited. But I wanted that to change. At that point, I really felt like I was the voice for the four women on the patrol, and all the ones who would be on the patrol going forward.

Dileo concedes he was hesitant. He credits Pretre with changing his mind.

“I was focused on tournaments in one way, and she was focused on them in an entirely different way,” he said. “I wanted to focus on training our better athletes, but she was focused on training everybody.

“Collette definitely gets the credit for bringing me around. Now, I believe the full experience of lifeguarding includes competition, and we want as many men and women involved in those competitions. And if they’re racing off to see which one competes, that just makes the whole squad better.”

Nowadays, SCBP’s women are competitively equal to the men, routinely winning events in mixed competitions, as well as scoring big points while winning women’s tournaments. In some respects, the women have exceeded the guys, according to Dileo.

“The women are very coachable. They work really hard in training, and set the standard in terms of sportsmanship and competitiveness,” he said. “They compete hard, but afterward they get along with the other women on the other patrols; their self-worth isn’t wrapped up in where they finish a race.”

Anna Esposito, who grew up in Manahawkin and was captain of the Southern Regional High School girls swim team before graduating in 2015, is among the top women competitors on the squad, often partnering with Gaby Hartney for rowing events. She said Dileo’s explanation about how female guards were trained for the patrol greatly appealed to her.

“I was in the Ship Bottom Lifeguard-in-Training program. But when I was 16 and being hired by Mark, he told me how much this patrol loved training its women and how much the women were a part of everything. And I loved that!” she said. “I’m all for girl power, and I really love seeing the women get the same opportunities here. We have men and women doing the same things out here, and we have a strong squad because of it. We all have our skill sets, and we really work well together to serve the public.”

It is that unique dynamic within the patrol that makes her a Surf City lifeguard “for life.”

“Once you’re a part of it, it’s in your blood,” she said. “It’s like a virus. It infects you and sticks with you. And it’s great.

“It’s awesome that our patrol is so balanced. We can lean on each other’s strengths to make sure our beach patrons are safe. That’s what drew me to this beach patrol, and I’ll be here for a long time.”

Surf City Beach Patrol, By the Numbers

Area of Beach Space Patrolled – 1.5 miles

Number of Guarded Beaches – 15

Number of Lifeguards Employed – 55

Most Experienced Lifeguard’s Years of Service – 39

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