Say “Baywatch” anywhere in the world and images come to mind of bathing-suited beauties bouncing down the beach, beautiful boys in buff boats racing through the surf, and wide sandy beaches patrolled by lifeguards who stepped out of modeling catalogues. It doesn’t matter what language you’re speaking, thanks to the television show, Baywatch needs no translation in hundreds of dialects around the world. This American export familiarized Japanese, Germans, South Africans and the rest of the world with the idealized Southern California lifeguards portrayed in the long-running television show.
Perhaps the only place in the world where “Baywatch” means something else is Catalina Island. Say “Baywatch” here and something much different, but much more important comes to mind. Baywatch Avalon and Baywatch Isthmus are our rescuers, our paramedics and our first line of defense against everything from bee stings to heart attacks and from dive accidents to lost hikers.
Those life-saving jobs are completed by eight full-time fully trained paramedics. Like their mainland counterparts – and the characters portrayed in the show – these men and women are employed by the Los Angeles County Fire Department, which operates the County-wide Ocean Lifeguard Service.
Unlike their mainland counterparts, however, the Island’s Baywatch team has much more extensive training. Each of the team members are fully-trained paramedics, a job designation that requires six months more training than the emergency medical technicians that work for Baywatch on the mainland. That added training, which most team members paid for out of pocket, includes three months in the classroom, one month in a hospital and two months on-the-job training with a paramedic unit. In the field, a paramedic designation gives the Baywatch team a better chance of saving a life. Not only can they start intravenous lines and give medications, they can interpret the EKG of a patient having heart trouble and, if need be, they can intubate a patient who’s fighting for breath.
Their education doesn’t stop with paramedic training, however. Baywatch personnel have also been schooled in marine fire-fighting, cliff rescue and high-angle rescue. All Baywatch lifeguards are scuba certified, but each of the Island-based Baywatch paramedics are also part of the Los Angeles County Underwater Rescue Recovery Team and regularly take part in underwater searches for lost divers.
“We like to work here because we like being paramedics,” said Baywatch Captain Steve Troegger. “We like that there’s more to the job here than on the mainland.” Nearly all of the Baywatch paramedics live on the Island full time, with the four team members of Baywatch Avalon living in the city and the four Baywatch Isthmus paramedics living in the small community of Two Harbors. That’s also something that sets them apart from their mainland counterparts; only on the Island does Baywatch respond around the clock.
The eight Catalina Baywatch paramedics provide coverage year round, with two paramedics on duty at each end of the Island at all times. Those two-man teams are composed of a senior man, the Baywatch Captain, and an Ocean Lifeguard paramedic. Each team works 24 hours, with the first team on shift from Sunday through Tuesday and the second team working Thursday to Saturday; Wednesdays are alternated between the two. During the day, the team works in the field, either at their office or on their rescue boat. At night, they return to their homes, responding via dispatch to 911 calls.
Those 911 calls cover a wide variety of incidents. In Avalon, the paramedics work side-by-side with the Avalon Fire Department, which does not have its own paramedics. “We work well together,” Troegger, who has been with Baywatch on the Island since 1985, said. “We train together regularly.” Because Baywatch Avalon functions as the city’s paramedic unit, most of their calls are based on the land. Bee stings, broken bones and accidents are regular calls, as are heart attacks and strokes from Avalon’s older residents and visitors.
Baywatch Avalon also works with the Avalon Harbor Patrol, responding to water-based calls within the city’s jurisdiction. The popularity of Avalon’s Casino Dive Park means that dive-related calls are common, with Baywatch and the harbor patrol seldom knowing how severe the call is until they arrive on scene. A panicked diver with a lost dive buddy may find that his lost partner just went to the rest room and was not lost at all or a fatigued diver may have decompression sickness requiring a high-speed trip to the Island’s decompression chamber, which is located 45 minutes away near Two Harbors.
If a call comes in about a boat in trouble outside of the city’s waters, one or the other of the Baywatch teams will respond as far away as the middle of the channel or nearly out to San Clemente Island. The two Baywatch teams divide the Island in half, with Baywatch Isthmus responding to all calls between Twin Rocks and Ben Weston beach and Baywatch Avalon covering the rest of the Island. Both teams respond together to major incidents, such as a plane crash or a lost hiker requiring search and rescue.
Whether on land or sea, the Baywatch teams have several resources to use. On land, a fully-equipped four-wheel drive pick-up truck, painted bright yellow, gets them, and their wide variety of life-saving equipment, where they need to go. On the water, both teams have a 32-foot rescue boat to rely on. That vessel, which is powered by two 300-horsepower Cummings diesel engines, can reach speeds of 30 knots and is well-equipped for saving lives as well as marine fire fighting. Both boats have hand-held hoses and fixed bow nozzles. Together the two nozzles can drench a fire with about 1,000 gallons of seawater per minute. The vessels are also equipped with de-watering pumps and other salvage equipment to help save a sinking boat. Baywatch crew members spend part of their time on duty maintaining those boats, duties include oil changes, trouble-shooting mechanical maladies, cleaning the bottoms and painting above the waterline. Once a year, each of the boats are taken to the mainland for a complete check-up.
Both the boats and the trucks get plenty of double takes on both ends of the Island, but it’s the office on Avalon’s green Pleasure Pier that gets the most interest. With its prominent location and large “Los Angeles County Baywatch” sign, Island visitors seem to be expecting something different, according to Troegger. “People walk by and look up, it’s like they expect to see David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson.”
Article by: Sherri Walker Cline
Santa Catalina Island