by Lt. Karl Bohn and Arthur C. Verge, Ph.D.
The history of the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Service closely mirrors the evolution and development of Southern California. As California entered the turn of the 20th Century, ocean lifesaving was mainly focused on the rescuing of ships and their passengers that had been involved in maritime accidents. These early lifesavers, who were affiliated with the United States Volunteer Life-Saving Service, carried out their rescues through the use of lifeboats. While the lifeboats proved quite effective in rescuing crews and passengers of ships in distress, the use of lifeboats began to diminish in Southern California with the arrival of George Freeth in 1907.
George Freeth came to Los Angeles at the behest of Southern California entrepreneur and real estate developer, Henry Huntington. Hunting-ton first met Freeth on the beach of Waikiki, where the vacationing Huntington had witnessed several men "walking on water," better known today as surfing. When Hunt-ington introduced himself to Freeth, Freeth's water skills were already legendary amongst his fellow Hawaiians and visitors to the island (visiting writer Jack London was so impressed with Freeth and his water skills that he dubbed him "The Brown Mercury," and in the process of describing what Freeth could do on "a piece of wood" introduced the rest of the world to the sport of surfing). Freeth's arrival in Los Angeles proved to be timely for Huntington. Having bought large tracts of land along the coast of Santa Monica Bay, Huntington hoped to lure real estate buyers to his properties; he did so by building a luxurious hotel and large indoor saltwater swimming plunge in Redondo Beach. In addition, Huntington heavily advertised Freeth's surfing ability aboard the Pacific Electric and on appointed weekend days, Freeth would take to the surf and demonstrate his "ability to walk on water."
As more and more people came to the coast to either visit or live a new problem arose, that of bathers avoiding the crowded plunge and taking to the ocean themselves. Based upon East Coast practices and those of the United States Lifesaving Volunteering Service, life rings were strategically placed along pier rails and lifeboats were positioned every few miles along the beach. With the ringing of an emergency bell, would-be rescuers would race to aid the swimmer in need by either throwing the life ring from the pier or having a lifeboat crew row out to the distressed swimmer. But both methods proved ineffective and inefficient as beach crowds continued to grow in size. What quickly became apparent was the need for a rescue methodology that could prove to be swift and efficient. Enter George Freeth. Freeth's main responsibility was for the Redondo plunge; however, he soon found himself increasingly summoned to aid in the rescue of ocean swimmers in distress. Without the aid of cumbersome lifeboat and crew, Freeth would run down the beach when needed and then swim out to save those in the throes of drowning. Freeth's prowess in surf-lifesaving quickly made him legend. He added to his effectiveness by introducing the rescue paddle board and the rescue can as part of his methodology. So good was Freeth that he eventually rode a motorcycle through newly constructed streets to carry out long distance emergency rescues. While Freeth is credited with the introduction of new techniques and equipment to ocean lifesaving, his greatest legacy was the training of many young protégés to aid him in his lifesaving efforts. Almost all of these young swimmers (two of whom were to be record holders in swimming) would go on to form the nucleus of the Los Angeles Ocean Lifeguard Service. Sadly, George Freeth never saw the formation of the L.A. County Lifeguard Service. Struck down at the early age of thirty-five in the horrid flu epidemic of 1919 Freeth's legacy remains fully intact, the basic rescue technique of the lifeguard running down the beach and effecting the necessary rescue by swimming out to the victim or victims remains much the same as it did when Freeth did it in 1907. Given that most ocean rescues take place within 100 yards of shore, this rescue methodology still remains the most effective and efficient. However, whereas Freeth had to contend with long distances between rescues, today's modern lifeguards are bolstered by beach rescue trucks and Baywatch rescue boats. In addition, all L. A. County Lifeguards are highly trained in advanced emergency first aid procedures. Bolstered by a staff of over 700 lifeguards, Los Angeles County Lifeguards perform over 11,000 emergency ocean rescues a year.