A crackling noise from the radio attached to his belt has Mark look down and listen more carefully as he steps out of the door of Brighton’s seafront office. A few seconds later comes the relief, nothing serious, just one of his colleagues trying to reach a fellow lifeguard who is patrolling along the beach.
But it isn’t always like that. When the radio turns on, the young man always has to pay close attention. If there is an incident down at the beach, he has to immediately take action and rush down on his quad bike to support the lifeguard team.
Mark is one of Brighton’s seafront coordinators who patrol along Brighton’s beach and check on the lifeguard posts. Last season, it was him who was in what he calls “the front line”, overlooking sea, beach and people, a duty which, for him, is massively different to pool lifeguarding (what he has been doing for nine years before that).
“Especially in an environment like Brighton beach, there are a lot more things that can happen very suddenly, whereas, in pool lifeguarding, you have a very controlled environment. For example, you could start a shift as a lifeguard on this beach advising people that it is not a dog-friendly beach for an hour or so, but then out of a sudden, you can have a member of the public coming to you saying that someone is having a heart attack. It can switch very quickly”, the former lifeguard remembers this incident during his August bank holiday shift last summer.
Although he is no longer doing the actual lifeguarding, the young man has been on enough shifts to know what it is like to be down at the beach and watching out for dangers, especially in Brighton, where there are more dangers lifeguards have to watch out for than you would expect.
“Drugs, alcohol and wild partying definitely represent a challenge for us here with all the clubs and bars down at the seafront. We had an incident last year where a guy had been gambling in horse racing, lost a lot of money, taken some pills and drunk a bottle of gin before swimming out to the sea. It took about 45 minutes for the patrol boat to drag him out of the water and took him back here because he didn’t want to come back to the shore”, Mark says.
Drunk people going for a swim, missing three or four-year-old toddlers who got separated from their parents, and bus loads of people coming down from London, seeing the sea for the first time and not being in the know about the dangers. Those are the people that Brighton’s lifeguards do especially look out for, but there is yet another type of beach-goer that they have to keep a close eye on.
“Another aspect that I think is worse in Brighton than elsewhere are homeless people who will go down to the sea to drown themselves. Not as much on days like today when it is sunny and hot, but on wet, grey, windy days, you also have to watch out for people who are fully clothed and strolling along the shoreline by themselves. In those cases, a really good lifeguard is proactive and goes out to address them really bluntly by asking them whether they consider suicide.”
Little chance of attempted suicide incidents on days where the weather is that great, but in return, good weather means a busy beach. On days like last weekend when soaring temperatures and mass events like the London to Brighton bike ride push everyone down to the beach to cool off, lifeguards and seafront coordinators are on high alert. When incidents start to pile up, an eight-hour shift can become really exhausting!
“My colleague and I were on the beach patrolling with the quad bikes, trying to get through the masses of people, when we had three incidents requiring immediate assistance coming in over the radio. There was a bin on fire in Hove, there was a woman who had fallen and banged her head and a little toddler who had banged his head as well. All these things were coming through the radio at the same time while we were dealing with a drunk guy we had to pull out of the shoreline because he couldn’t stand up anymore.
“Then, half an hour later, I had a call from my manager come through with a suspected heart attack in the cafe just next to Brighton music hall. I think during the entire day, I only spent 45 minutes in the office, having lunch and checking emails”, Mark describes last Sunday’s shift on the beach.
While he is busy patrolling along the beach with his quad bike, ready to administer first aid for everything ranging from simple bandages to making use of the defibrillator or oxygen tanks hidden in the boot of the quad, his colleagues from the lifeguard get into constant action mode as well, a routine that he still knows very well from last summer.
With three to four lifeguards per beach on busy days, there is a fixed rotation pattern that they follow through to “keep everybody’s mind up” as Mark calls it. One paddling along the shoreline with the rescue board, another one patrolling on foot along the beach, another one staying at the lifeguard spot.
For incidents happening a bit further out, the beach lifeguards can count on their colleagues on the rescue boat to deal with frequent dangers such as people trying to swim underneath and climb the old Westpier or jet ski drivers going crazy doing doughnuts where others want to swim. In such chaotic situations, it all goes down to teamwork!
“Solid teamwork and good communication among us. If you bring them together, you can have things run smoothly at the beach. We are really lucky here with the team, everyone is really passionate about what they do”, says the seafront coordinator who never does a single step without his radio.
When he receives what is called an “immediate” from one of his colleagues, there is only one way for him to react, straight decisive action. “I panic for about two seconds and then I go straight into action. When you are in the routine, you become really quick at making up a plan by saying ‘You do this, I go and sort that out’. It’s just about being decisive.”
The experienced lifeguard has learned to keep a cool head and put into practice the basic skills he has acquired during his intense five-day lifeguard training with the RNLI. First aid, CPR, different ways of rescuing people out in the water, a timed swim… all the lifeguards, who ensure swimmers’ safety on Brighton’s beaches during the end of May and mid-September, are fully qualified and trained.
But the training does only prepare them to a certain extent. When it comes to dealing with incidents that are unique to the area, the newly trained lifeguards have to “pick those skills up as they go”, as Mark describes it. The first shift usually is the one everyone feels nervous about!
“When I had my first shift, I felt a mixture of nervousness and excitement. And then on my second day, I already had to rescue someone with the board and deal with a drunk guy who had swum out. Shortly after that, I had two lost little boys and I was wondering whether it was gonna be like that every day”, Mark remembers his first few shifts as a lifeguard.
After having to jump in at the deep end, he quickly got into the routine and deatl with stressful situations. Although he admits getting a little stressed at times when there is too much happening at the same time, Mark doesn’t consider his job to be stressful. “It can be exhausting sometimes, but I wouldn’t describe it as a stressful job!”
For the student who has only just finished his humanities degree, there are many enjoyable sides to being a lifeguard, like being out in the sun all day long and being part of a great team. “We have people from all walks of life, students, ambulance men… and we have barbecues on the beach after work, go on surfing trips together… We do work hard, I am in the middle of a seven days in a row scheme, but there is a good balance between work and social life among colleagues!”
They are between 5o and 60 lifeguards during the peak season, 30 to 35 being on duty on eleven different spots in along Brighton’s shoreline between Saltdean and Hove Lagoon throughout the day. Together with the fourteen seafront coordinators and officers, they do their best to keep Brighton’s beaches safe. Despite their high number, they can’t be everywhere and also rely on the public to report any sort of incident that requires their support.
“If people see someone being in trouble, they can just call 999 and talk to the coastguard”, Mark says. For once, the radio is still but that could change any minute!
Lifeguards are operating on Brighton’s beaches between 10 am and 7 pm every day from the last bank holiday weekend in May all the way through to September. On some of the quieter beaches, the lifeguards are present from 11.30 am and 5.30 pm. If you have any inquiry about the lifeguard service, you can call Brighton’s seafront office on 01273 292716.
If you are interested in joining Brighton’s lifeguards during the next season, check out the website in February and March as applications close in April.