Eilene Zimmerman is a journalist based in San Diego. She has written for The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Slate.
“We aren’t Baywatch.”
Name: Dana Nelsen
City: San Diego, CA
Beachfront apartments are coveted property in San Diego, but for Dana Nelsen, the sunny view has another benefit: proximity to her “office,” the main lifeguard tower in Mission Beach. In San Diego, lifeguard services fall under the jurisdiction of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. Training is rigorous and intensive. Lifeguards have to earn SCUBA certification and be certified EMTs, and be able to swim in rocky areas, where they perform cliff rescues. “You go through a lot of physical testing including running, paddling, and navigating through big surf,” says Nelsen.
Nelson grew up in San Diego and spent a lot of time swimming, surfing, and playing water polo, but since she became a full-time lifeguard in October 2013, hanging out at the beach for fun has lost some of its appeal. “When I do go, I drive to a beach further up the coast,” she says. “To non-work water.”
What’s the craziest day of the summer?
July 4th, for sure. We call it the Super Bowl of Lifeguarding because the beach is so packed with people, tents, big canopies, and barbecues that you can’t see the sand.
What’s an average workday like for you?
I’m constantly in and out of the water. On a busy summer day at Mission Beach, we’ll have 15-25 rescues, but we’re in the water a lot more than that doing prevention. We go into the water and ask people to move to a safer area, and we also do lots of public announcements, trying to keep people out of dangerous rip currents, which can sweep swimmers—especially kids—off their feet and into deeper water.
We work four, ten-hour days each week. I’ll sit two or three shifts during the day, for a maximum of 90 minutes at a time. Mission Beach has a high concentration of people so you have to keep very focused the entire time.
When I’m not in the chair, I’m driving the truck around looking to prevent problems and talking to the public about beach laws.
What do you like about this gig?
One of the coolest things about being a lifeguard is the camaraderie—we’re kind of our own family. I’ve met some of my best friends working on the oceanfront. It’s also very appealing to not be in an office.
What do you wish people knew about this job?
That we aren’t Baywatch. A lot of people who have watched that show really think we’re just here to tan and work out, not to help people. I’ve had people come up to me and say “Hey, Baywatch!” They think, oh, what an easy job, to be a lifeguard.