Skip to main content

San Clemente Journal

Guardian of Life

Jun 02, 2015 03:11PM ● By Jon Millhouse
An Interview with Lifeguard Supervisor Dennis White.
by Jonie Millhouse

Dennis White is San Clemente’s Ocean Lifeguard Supervisor & Junior Lifeguard Coordinator holding the following certifications: American Heart Association CPR, Certified CPR instructor, Emergency Medical Technician, and PC832 Laws of Arrest.

A little background 
I have spent my whole life in San Clemente. All of my best childhood memories took place at the beach. I remember waking up most mornings during summer and hoping that my parents would take me and my brothers down to the beach. I would be in the water from the moment we got down to the beach till my mom would tell me that we had to go home. At a very young age, I had so much love and respect for the ocean.
I graduated from San Clemente High School in 2010, transferred to Saddleback Community College and am now a junior at California State University, Fullerton majoring in Communications. All four years of high school I was on the water polo team. My junior and senior year I competed on the surf team. My senior year I was runner-up for the state and national title in the longboarding division. At Saddleback I played one year of water polo and competed on the surf team there as well.

How did you get into guarding?
When I was 10 years old my brother and I joined the Junior Lifeguard Program. It was always the highlight of my summers. Being able to surf, swim, bodyboard, and play games at the beach while learning and gaining knowledge of the ocean was a blast. I still remember many of my instructors when I was in the program. I always looked up to them and thought they were the coolest people. I remember thinking, “I want to be just like them when I grow up.” Although doing Junior Lifeguards was one of the main reasons I got into guarding, without my older brother, Kyle, I would not be a lifeguard today.   

Kyle is three years older than me and I always looked up to him. When he turned 16-years-old, he tried out for the City of San Clemente Lifeguards and got the job. He would come home exhausted from a long busy day at work and always tell me about the awesome stories of what happened at the beach and some of the rescues he had to make. Apart from the stories and rescues he made, what stood out most to me was the expression on his face when telling me about his day. He always had a smile or a positive grin on his face when talking about what happened on the beach. He always looked so happy when he came home from work and that is what really got me into lifeguarding. I wanted to come home from work with that same smile and attitude that he had, knowing that I made a difference in somebody’s life.

Early experience. 
I started the Junior Lifeguard Program when I was 10 years old and did it for about four years. It was some of the most fun times during my childhood. My two favorite activities were, jumping off the pier and surfing. I gained so much knowledge of the ocean during my years of being a junior lifeguard and I know I would not be in the position I am in now if I had not gone through the program.  I am still reaping the benefits of the Junior Lifeguard Program today. 

Benefits of Jr. Lifeguards? 
The Junior Lifeguard Program is an ocean and beach safety program for kids 9 - 17 years old. They receive training and experience in beach and ocean safety. I believe the greatest benefit from the program is the knowledge you gain about the ocean and how to spot its potential hazards. When coming down to the beach, you never know what the conditions will be for the day. After going through the Junior Lifeguard Program, kids can come down to the beach and spot the dangers and avoid them and have a safer and more enjoyable day.

Significant influences?
Obviously, my brother, but, when I was a younger guard I had a couple of great mentors. The first was, Allen Bayer. Allen was a more senior guard and for many of my rookie year shifts he was in the towers with me. He was an outstanding lifeguard and what I liked most about him is that he taught me how to relax when working in the towers. As rookies, our minds are going 100 mph, our heart rate is going faster than ever because we are responsible for watching hundreds of people in the water and on the beach. Your first couple of years as a lifeguard can be very stressful and Allen taught me how to keep myself cool, calm and collected. The second guard that I always remember being a great mentor was one of my supervisors and Marine Safety Officer, Nick Giugni. He, along with our Lieutenant, Rod Mellott, were the two guards who taught my rookie training class. Nick was always the guard who would push me to my limits. He is very competitive and would always go above and beyond to make sure I gave 100% in everything I did. From talking to the public to making rescues he would always give me positive feedback. 

Why are you so passionate?
Ever since I was young, I had a love and passion for the ocean. I realized that I had a great skill and much knowledge about the ocean and the beach and to be able to take that passion and turn it into a career was an opportunity I could not pass up. I get the best feeling when I truly make a difference in somebody’s life. 

What is the top misunderstanding about lifeguards? 
That they are lazy, beach bums, relaxing in the tower, trying to get a tan. Many visitors come down to the beach and see us sitting in towers scanning the water, back and forth for hours at a time. Some people believe that lifeguards have one of the easiest jobs in the world. What they don’t know is we are responsible for the safety of thousands of lives in and out of the water each day. 

Gnarliest rescue? 
My craziest rescue happened my rookie year in 2008. It was a red flag day (dangerous conditions). I was working lifeguard tower #1 (first tower on the south side of the pier). Wave faces were about 7 – 8 ft. and there was an extremely strong littoral current pulling towards the pier. I responded to a bodyboarder that was drifting into a rip current and making his way too close to the pier. When I got to my victim, we were about 100 yards off the pier and that was when I realized I could not get him to shore without going through the pier. With little time before coming too close to the pier, I instructed the bodyboarder to take his leash off so it would not entangle in one of the pier pilings but with the strong current the bodyboard was swept away and before we knew it, his leash was wrapped around the pier. With a large multiple wave set just outside, I quickly grabbed his leash ripped it off and took the victim through the pier. We just barely made it through the pier before the large set broke. Making it safely to shore we were soon greeted by his parents and friends. His mom ran up to me and hugged me saying, “thank you so much”. The boy was also very thankful I had made it to him in time before he went through the pier as well. 

How many are on your team? 
We have five full-time lifeguards, four supervisors, and about 35 seasonal tower guards.
How many rescues per year?
We average between 3,500 – 4,000 rescues a year.

Things people should know about a Water Safety Career.
A career in Water Safety can be very stressful yet very rewarding. Not many jobs provide you with the opportunity to say that you made a difference in someone’s life. Each day at work, you come in contact with hundreds of people. We get the opportunity to educate these people, in water safety and hopefully prevent them from getting into dangerous situations. In addition, it is a great career because you are almost always outdoors and in the aquatic environment. For those who love to be outdoors, a career in water safety is a great path. 

Where would somebody start? 
The best way to get a leg up in this profession is to educate and familiarize yourself with the ocean environment. Join swim teams, water polo teams, and surfing classes. Keep yourself in good physical and mental shape. Lifeguarding is a very tough career and you need to be in great shape just to make the tryouts. Classes you can take include: CPR certifications, First Aid and first responder classes. Some of the best lifeguards are people who have spent most of their lives in the ocean doing a variety of activities. 

How can the public help the guards? 
The number one way the public can help us do our job better is to educate themselves about the ocean environment. With ocean conditions changing everyday, beachgoers should always expect different circumstances when coming to the beach. We have many beach visitors each day and if they are unaware of conditions, they can always talk to a lifeguard before going into the water. Some safety tips we give the public include: learn to swim, swim near a lifeguard, and never swim alone. If caught in a rip current, swim parallel to shore, and when diving protect your head neck and spine, never dive in head first.