Written by Ocean Rescue Chief Julia Leo
Ocean Rescue has yet to gather a comprehensive history written of its origin from its inception to modern times. Due to the lack of records, not all the dates below can be determined to be factual.
Aquatic safety in Palm Beach County dates back to 1885. Although the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse was a tremendous aid to sailors, the Jupiter Inlet area still experienced a great number of shipwrecks. Florida’s east coast had only one lifesaving station and it was located on the south side of the Jupiter Inlet, now known as Carlin Park. The station, under the command of Captain Carlin, was equipped with a lifeboat, surfboat, a full crew of paid “surfmen”, and an enclosed lookout tower which sat on its roof. The “surfmen” worked in six-hour shifts, taking turns patrolling the beach and looking into the distance from the crow’s nest above the two-story station to look for ships in distress and to save lives. Captain Carlin kept their skills sharp, practicing rescue techniques with the surfboat and other lifesaving tools. Surfmen were members of the United States Life-Saving Service which later became part of the United States Coast Guard. The Jupiter Lifesaving Station closed after its crew had performed a decade of courageous rescues.
Prior to 1969 in Palm Beach County, an African American male, named Kirby, was designated as a Park Ranger/Lifeguard and was stationed at Jupiter Beach Park. He was a large soft spoken man that was revered. The Sherriff’s Department had one Officer/Lifeguard stationed in his patrol car at the Twin City Mall in Lake Park with a rescue buoy who responded to incidents when notified. By 1970, the residents of Palm Beach County were demanding more public beaches and lifeguards and so the Palm Beach County Beach Patrol began with three guarded beaches: DuBois Park, Jupiter Beach and Carlin Park.
There were five full time lifeguards and one part time lifeguard. Dave McGregor was the first Lifeguard Supervisor and was also a commercial fisherman. The Beach Patrol Headquarters was under the staircase of the now Lazy Loggerhead restaurant at Carlin Park. Carlin Park also served as the Patrol’s overall training area and was the most popular beach. The lifeguards were equipped with a buoy, basic first aid equipment, a rescue board, and an open satellite stand to view swimmers and boaters. The swimming areas were roped off until the implementation of swim area buoys. The lifeguards worked eight-hour days five days a week. To be hired, a lifeguard needed to be CPR-certified, demonstrate they were a competent ocean swimmer and paddle a rescue board. By the late 1970s, lifeguards were required to be certified in American Red Cross Lifesaving, run one mile, swim half a mile and perform rescues to be hired. Today, applicants have similar requirements to be hired, however, they run and swim continuously in three loops on the beach.
Back in the 1970s, a guard would phone daily to a radio station to broadcast beach conditions. The report served as a helpful public service announcement and to build good public relations. Today, both Ocean Rescue districts post a daily beach conditions report on the Parks and Recreation website and record it as a message on a designated phone line.
In 1974, voters approved a $50 million bond that was used to pay for six new beach parks. Work started on the six parks in 1977 when the county won the last of the court challenges. Also in 1974, the county enclosed a picnic pavilion at Carlin Park for the lifeguard headquarters (later demolished in 2008). The first backroom offices had no A/C. The lifeguards bought and installed A/C wall units, later replaced by the county when they broke. When Ocean Reef Park opened in 1987 it was the first backroom office to have a shower and a restroom for staff.
The lifeguards primarily rescued boaters. The Jupiter Inlet mouth and surrounding waters were infamous for the lives and variety of crafts it claimed. The most significant hazard was the sand bar east of the inlet. The lifeguards rescued boaters using rescue boards designed to float up to three persons. In 1977, the statistics of the many boater mishaps prompted purchasing two surfboats. By then the lifeguard staff had grown to eighteen, and the two surfboats were put in service at the “rescue boat station” at Jupiter Beach Park. The surfboats were used to rescue victims in up to ten-foot breaking waves. Three lifeguards on staff that had previous rowing experience were tasked to share their expertise and train the lifeguards on rowing and handling the boat in surf. One of the guards, Dave Lill, later became the first Ocean Rescue Chief, then Aquatics Supervisor, and finished his career with Palm Beach County as the Aquatics Director.
Also in 1977, the CETA Program (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) under President Jimmy Carter enabled Palm Beach County to hire several full time lifeguards, many of which became career lifeguards. The purpose of the program was to attack the problem of unemployment, and to train workers and provide them with jobs in public service. CETA funds were administered in a decentralized fashion by state and local governments, on the assumption that they could best determine local needs.
In 1979 the county built two enclosed lifeguard towers. At the time they were the first of their kind in South Florida. The towers protected the guards from inclement weather conditions, and improved the guard’s visibility by placing the guard eye level at 20 feet above sea level. The towers had wraparound windows, a walk-around deck, telephone
communication and was able to store all the rescue equipment. The towers were placed at Kreusler Park and Jupiter Beach Park. By 1981, a Central District was formed (later renamed South District) which included Kreusler Park and Phil Foster Park. The Central District worked four ten-hour days while the north district continued working five eight-hour days until mid-1983. The ten-hour day is still in effect today which offers substantial benefits by providing a longer protected bathing day to the public and the ability to conduct in-house training without affecting service to the public, which results in better qualified and trained lifeguards. The ten-hour day continues to be an attraction to recruit both full time and part time lifeguards.
In 1984 the county acquired its first four-meter rigid-hull inflatable rescue boat (IRB) with a 40-horsepower engine that was stationed at the Jupiter Inlet. Lieutenant Peter Leo, already a licensed USCG Captain, and Lt. Chuck Price were chosen to be the first rescue boat operators for Palm Beach County. They attended a course taught by Marine Rescue Consultants of Newport Beach, CA to learn how to operate the IRB in rough water and surf conditions. Operating the IRB is a high risk skilled job that allows lifeguards to respond quickly to incidents and transport multiple victims. In 1986, Palm Beach County hosted the Marine Rescue Consultants Inflatable Rescue Boat course for other public safety agencies and continued to do so for 27 years. Today, Palm Beach County has two 5.4-meter rescue boats with 90 horsepower engines stationed at Jupiter and Ocean Inlet Park in Boynton. At one time, South Inlet Park which protects the Boca Raton Inlet had a tiller driven IRB. Since then, the boat was replaced with a Personal Water Craft, known as a Rescue Water Craft (RWC) when used for rescuing and in emergency situations. The RWCs are reliable, high speed, shallow draft vessels that can be extremely quick and maneuverable, essential qualities when responding to emergencies in rough surf and breaking waves. The county purchased its first RWC in 2001. In addition to the craft at South Inlet, there is one at Jupiter Beach and one has been purchased to be put in operation at Phil Foster Park.
Boat rescues and assists have decreased over the years due to other public and private agencies assisting boaters, an increased amount of recreational boaters that will assist others, improved technology and the quality of boats. Ocean Rescue continues to be the chief agency that can rescue boaters in large breaking waves. Today, the majority of the rescues performed are due to rip currents. Rip currents are created primarily by the force of incoming waves, combined with the force of gravity creating a backrush of water to sea. They can move at over 4 mph, vary greatly in size and power, and are hard to detect to the untrained eye and are a dangerous hazard to swimmers. On average, Palm Beach County lifeguards perform a few hundred rip current rescues each year. This number would be much higher if not for their diligence in preventative actions to move, warn, and educate patrons. On average, lifeguards perform over 100,000 preventative actions a year.
From 1977-1984, beach attendance increased 800% to 1.2 million at 12 guarded beach parks with a staff of nearly 70. In 1986, Loggerhead Park opened and the north district HQ was relocated there from Carlin Park. The North District HQ moved one more time to a new building in Juno Beach Park in 2007. The new HQ, named after former Aquatics Division Director Dave Lill, is a vast improvement with a conference and storage room, male and female restrooms with showers and locker rooms and four offices. The previous Loggerhead HQ was demolished in 2009. The South District HQ (SDHQ) was located in Gulfstream Park in the early 1980s and was relocated to Ocean Inlet Park in 2011, when the Palm Beach County Sherriff’s Office Marine unit vacated the building to move their operation to Phil Foster Park. Today the SDHQ has temporarily moved back to Gulfstream Park while the Ocean Inlet building is being demolished/rebuilt.
In 1996, Palm Beach County Beach Patrol became one of the first 50 Beach Safety Agencies in the United States to be certified by the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA). The county has maintained the certification since its inception and has been approved as a USLA certified agency through 2024. The certification demonstrates a commitment to providing a high level of public safety in the open water environment.
In 2000, Ocean Rescue Chief Don May changed the name of the division from Beach Patrol to Ocean Rescue. Job titles have also changed. The original job title of an Ocean Lifeguard was called Lifeguard II. Lieutenants, once referred to as Beach Captains, were titled Lifeguard III. The Captains were titled Assistant District Beach Patrol Supervisor, and the Chief was known as Beach Safety Supervisor. Job descriptions have been revised as well. New descriptions reflect Ocean Rescue work as public safety work that provides on-scene emergency medical care, as well of other changes.
Ocean Rescue has evolved over the years with the upgrade and addition of new equipment. Some examples of medical equipment used by lifeguards include AED’s, oral and nasal pharyngeal airways, pulse oximeters, blood pressure monitors, Narcan, epi pens, and glucose. Whistles and hand signals, still used today, were the original means of communication between guards and the public. Today, each lifeguard carries an 800 MHz radio, which is the easiest way for a guard to communicate with partners, other beaches in the district and interagency communication with Fire Rescue (EMS) and Park Rangers. The landline phones in the towers became difficult to maintain due to erosion and salt intrusion and have been replaced with cell phones. Changes in policies and certification requirements have improved the operation along with the implementation of a Trainee Academy, Fire Rescue Dispatch protocols, improved lifeguard towers, public education and competition teams and a Medical Director under contract.
When Ocean Cay Park opened in 2001 and lifeguard protection began at Peanut Island in 2005, the number of protected beach parks grew to sixteen. Today, beach attendance is over 5.7 million visitors with a staff of 112. There is one chief, two district supervisors, two captains, two training officers, 16 lieutenants, 47 permanent lifeguards, 40 seasonal lifeguards, and two general maintenance workers. Palm Beach County Ocean Lifeguards are all exceedingly skilled and trained ocean athletes and dedicated individuals who offer an outstanding life saving service to all visitors of County beaches. They strive to keep all beachgoers safe through protection, prevention, and education.
The knowledge, skills and rigorous training of these dedicated professionals has yielded some notable awards.
1990 – First place in the Southeast Regional USLA Competition
1992 – First place in the Southeast Regional USLA Competition
1996 – Beach Patrol of the Year by the Florida Beach Patrol Chief’s Association
2003 – First place in the Bill Shearer International Basic Life Support Competition at CLINCON
2004 – First place in the USLA National Competition
2009 – Paul Drucker awarded the USLA SER Lifetime Achievement Award
2010 – Kevin Tillman awarded the USLA SER Lifetime Achievement Award
2016 – Beach Patrol of the Year by the Florida Beach Patrol Chief’s Association
2018 – First place in the Southeast Regional USLA Competition
2021 – First place in the Southeast Regional USLA Competition
Seven Palm Beach County Ocean Lifeguards have been named Lifeguard of the Year in the state of Florida.
Chuck Price: 1987
Ken Gunther: 1989
Jerry Hutton: 1992
Julia Leo: 1997
Dennis Ward: 2006
Larry Russell: 2016
Ryan Keith: 2019