If you’ve ever given or received directions anywhere in Jacksonville Beach, the historic lifeguard station located at the foot of Beach Boulevard is used as a unit of distance at some point. For over a century, members of the American Red Cross Volunteer Life Saving Corps have kept watch over the Jacksonville Beach coast from the iconic peg tower. It’s a way of life that represents a vital part of the community’s culture as much as the sun and the surf itself.
On July 19, Capt. Rob Emahiser shared a detailed narrative of the history of the Life Saving Corps, from its beginnings to the changes that helped create a seamless unit of men and women dedicated to keeping the beaches safe. Presented by the Beaches Museum, Boardwalk Talk was held at the American Red Cross Life Saving Station followed by a brief walking tour of the boardwalk.
“We’ve got a lot in common with the Beaches Museum with our history,” says Emahiser. “The Life Saving Corps is what started it all and where the history really is.”
In the summer of 1912, a dozen volunteers formed the United States Volunteer Life Saving Corps at what was then called Pablo Beach. Since then, thousands of men and women have joined the ranks to carry on the tradition of The Corps. Today, the ranks include more than 120 active members and hundreds of alumni of the Corps who proudly hold the title of “Retired Surfman.”
Members of the Corps have recorded over 1,400 life saving rescues, over 1,800 assists to swimmers in distress, and more than 25,000 first aid cases ranging from jellyfish to broken limbs. This record of service totals over 1,300,000 hours of volunteer service along with the 4,000 members and alumni of the Volunteer Life Saving Corps.
Emahiser has spent 23 years with the Corps, and, in March 2014, he was promoted to Captain. He also served as a Lieutenant for its sister organization, Ocean Rescue. “Lifeguarding here has two parallel organizations: Life Saving Corps and the beach patrol. I’ve been a Volunteer Life Saving Corps member and served on their staff for three different years. When I came back in 2007, I really rededicated myself to this. When the previous captain left, I saw a good opportunity to move up,” he says.
Over the years, The Corps has experienced a level growth that has elevated the perception of lifeguards. Emahiser strives to inspire confidence in his staff that they are more than a pool lifeguard that a lot of people see sitting up on a tower. “We have the whistle and we also put zinc on our nose, but these guys are athletes and professionals,” he says. “From 16 and up, they have people’s lives in their hand and they need to take it seriously.”
Daily training is an ongoing part of the job and includes various scenario-based exercises from a rescue situation to a submerged victim simulation. “We’ve really upped our lifeguard skills, training and professionalism. We had some EMTs back when I started 23 years ago but only one or two,” he says.
“Now we’ve got 25 percent or better, and we’ve got a lot of our guys who go into the medical field. We’ve got at least two emergency room physicians, several surgeons, several nurses with Masters’ degrees who still come back and lifeguard. We use their knowledge and experience to bring everyone’s level of training up. When we get out on the beach and have a job to do, I know with confidence that they’re able to handle it.”
When Emahiser was promoted to captain, among his goals was getting a medical director on staff. Dr. Andrew Schmidt was a former lifeguard who serves as the Medical Director under contract with the city of Jacksonville Beach. He oversees all the standard operating procedures and makes determinations that elevate the standard of care in emergency situations that require medical intervention.
“If anyone ever questioned what we do or why we do something, we can say well, we did this because we have Dr. Schmidt, who is an ER physician, approving everything we do and how we do it,” says Emahiser. “It affects how we make our decisions, whether we should call Fire Rescue or handle things ourselves. Whenever you touch somebody as a first responder you have to make sure that you’re acting to the standard of care that [is] accepted across the country. When we evaluate a person, we want to make sure our guards are trained to that standard.”
As an expert in the pathology of drowning, Dr. Schmidt is also changing the way lifeguards address that risk. Emahiser and Justin Sempsrott, a former Corps member and executive director of Lifeguards Without Borders, partnered with the World Health Organization to redefine “drowning” as a process and not an event. They’re also working to eliminate terms such as dry drowning, near drowning or dry land drowning that can complicate a response.
“We’re teaching EMS, police dispatchers and paramedics in this area and around the country to stop using those terms. If we have an incident, we will report exactly what’s happening to dispatch, so they will know how to respond,” says Emahiser. “A lot of people used to think if you were drowning, you were dead, but it’s a process where you’re submerged in a liquid and you experience respiratory distress. If you are struggling and you submerge anywhere in your bathtub or in the ocean, you are then drowning. What we do is interrupt the process of drowning. It used to be that wasn’t counted. If you didn’t die, you didn’t drown, and that’s just not the case.”
The Jacksonville Beach station will soon be outfitted with a system that will allow corps members to maintain their own oxygen tanks without having to rely on the fire department for support. “We won’t have to leave the station, and we’ll always have plenty of oxygen if we have a busy day with a lot of rescues,” says Emahiser.
As the only full-time staff members, it’s up to Emahiser and his First Lieutenant Joe Walcutt to impress the younger members the importance of professionalism in all areas from communication to punctuality. The alumni and senior corps members also serve as mentors to the younger generation to arm them with the practical life skills that they will carry ahead into all aspects of their adult lives. Each recruit is assigned a mentor to help them through the physical aspect but also offer advice and help them meet their goals.
“For a lot of these kids, it’s their first job, so we’re doing a lot of basic training as well. You need to use two alarm clocks. You need to make sure you plan out how you’re going to get here. Make sure you have reliable transportation. You need to communicate, know your schedule, have a calendar, and use it,” says Emahiser. “At 9am I call roll, and they are all there on time. That’s part of teaching responsibility, so that everyday I have the same number of people showing up in uniform. They have water, they’ve got a whistle, and they’re ready to lifeguard.”