I was born in New Jersey in the wonderful year of 1958. I was raised in Jersey City, and there on the Jersey shore is where my child-rearing and life-saving career began.
I was in New Jersey through my formative years in high school and going to college. During the summer, I started working as a lifeguard at a pool and then stepped up to working on the beach, which is a whole different atmosphere.
I came to Miami Beach in 1993, which gives me a little over 23 years working for the Miami Beach Fire Department’s Ocean Rescue division.
Originally, my plan out of college was to teach during the school year so I could be a lifeguard during the summer, but coming from New Jersey that was only a summer seasonal job, and the call of the ocean was so strong that I came to Florida in hopes of getting a job as a lifeguard here.
I had a teaching degree in health and physical education, recreation and dance, which I thought would make a good degree for a career as a lifeguard. New Jersey had some inclement and snowy weather though, so I wanted to find a place that was sunny 365 days of the year.
A moment that influenced me was when I worked at my first pool job and I saved someone’s life. It may sound overdramatic, but had I not been there it could have been much worse. And that was the rush. That was a draw for me to lifeguarding, being able to have an impact on a person’s life (or death), and that followed me through college where I worked during the summers as a lifeguard.
I then became interested in ocean rescue and lifeguarding on the beach, which is different from working at a pool or a water park. The confines of the pool can be limiting, but the wide range of the ocean is a challenge.
The job of any lifeguard is to ensure that anybody who enters a body of water, large or small, does not drown. At the ocean, we deal with additional factors like the weather that can change very quickly and drastically. The ocean is very different than a pool, and there are deep and shallow spots all over the ocean and also waves.
We want new lifeguards to understand how the beach is a unique environment and what he or she needs to know about their job on the beach. Miami Beach is a wonderful place; we joke about it and say that it’s “surf, sun and sex.” It’s an area with various cultures, ethnicities and different kinds of people out on the beach, which can be distracting for new lifeguards and the public. We want our lifeguards to stay focused.
There have been unfortunate medical issues and fatalities where someone died, and we want to keep this from happening as much as possible. Cardiac arrest on the beach is often fatal. It’s sometimes treatable, but out in the water it can be very dangerous. Our goal is to make sure that nobody drowns, and we are good at it. But there are situations that are beyond our control.
To this day I still am occasionally stumped. After 30 years on the beach, there are always new things that I see and need to know how to address.
Here’s a funny story: There was a group of young men who were out swimming, and as they were returning one of them was having trouble, doing what we call the “tip-toe dance” on the bottom of the ocean. He started to cramp up from bouncing up and down in the ocean, and once the group made it back to shore his friends all tried to help him treat the cramp in his calf. He started howling in pain, and his friends didn’t know that they should help him massage the cramp so it would heal. Instead they thought that they should pull all of the hair out of his leg where he was cramping.
They start pulling handfuls of hairs from his leg, and now he was screaming from that and the leg cramp. We had to explain to his friends that ripping the hair out of his leg wasn’t going to help him, and we helped him recover from his cramp. This is one of the weird things that happen on the beach.
There’s no other place comparable to Miami Beach or South Florida in the United States other than the Hawaiian Islands, where there are warmer waters.
People here are also more scantily dressed; they don’t have to worry about their winter outfits. Here in Miami it’s a very outdoors-oriented and physical experience on the beach. In beach culture in general, you see people enjoying the weather, the water, and the sun. For much of the coastal United States, it’s a different feel in those communities and cities than in the rest of the country, and I think it’s because of the beach access. It’s a beautiful thing. I have a sign on my wall at home that says, “The ocean fixes everything.” It’s a great place to live and work while other people are here to enjoy their vacation.
I’m not going to complain about living here, but personally I have issues when my family members visit and they want to go to the beach, obviously, and I want to go elsewhere. I also notice that when I’m at the beach, I’m never off-duty. A lot of times I’ll have to turn my chair around so I’m not looking at the ocean, but I always carry the lifeguarding duty with me.
A job is job, but a job working at the beach beats anything. It’s a great place to be.
This story was transcribed from an interview between Gerry Falconer, a Miami Beach lifeguard, and the HistoryMiami South Florida Folklife Center as part of a research project exploring the question “What Makes Miami Miami?” The Florida Folklife Program, a component of the Florida Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources, directed the project.