Baja California may be in Mexico, but it is still California consequently and faces many of the same natural hazards as its neighbor to the north. Wildfires, stormy oceans and beaches full of people who aren’t necessarily the best swimmers pose a constant challenge for safety personnel operating on very limited budgets. In Northern Baja, the Asociacion de Bomberos del Estado de Baja California (ABEBC), Inc. reported that 70 percent of the aquatic emergencies their agencies respond to are of locals, whereas 80 percent of the cliff-related rescues are of tourists. Fortunately for Mexican firefighters and beach lifeguards-usually one and the same-in addition to their own rigorous training programs, training opportunities abound north of the border as well, and many municipal public safety departments in Southern California have offered help in the form of free classes and donated equipment.
Last week, a group of 11 lifeguards from Tijuana, Rosarito, and Ensenada traveled to Santa Barbara to participate in training offered by the Santa Barbara Chapter of the American Red Cross in conjunction with the Santa Barbara County Parks Department’s lifeguard service. “We know this country has the best skills, and we would like to comply with the National Fire Protection Association standards,” said Marco Olmos, the director of government relations and training for ABEBC, who regularly organizes training trips to California for Mexican firefighters. He has brought groups of more than 70 firefighters to the states, but this trip was different in that it was the first one focusing on lifeguard skills.
Aside from classes in first aid and CPR from the Red Cross, the training also included water skills led by Jon Menzies, Santa Barbara County’s aquatics coordinator and lifeguard supervisor. Firefighters from Santa Barbara County Fire Station 11 – located on Storke Road in Goleta and known as the county’s water rescue unit – trained the Mexican guards in the safe use of jet skis. Rosarito has two jet skis that were donated by fire departments in Southern California. Water skills sessions included paddleboard rescues, pier jumps, and physical training such as running and swimming. The last day they were here, the guards swam out to one of the Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol’s fire boats and received a tour of the harbor.
A few of the visiting Mexican guards have been watching their hometown beaches for only a few years, but many have been at it for quite some time. Twenty-five years ago, a man from Hawaii named Ronald Jensen went to Rosarito Beach with a group of young Americans from the American Red Cross in San Diego to offer lifeguard training to some of the locals. Polo Gonzalez, who took advantage of the training and has been lifeguarding ever since, said that the effort was in response to reports of increased incidences of drowning in the area. Now, he said, people come from California about every two years to train guards there.
For the past six years, Anna Lucia Lopez has worked as a lawyer in Tijuana, and as a lifeguard at nearby beaches for the past five. She has focused much of her effort over the past two years on training groups of children, and trained about 50 kids last summer. She has plans to switch to being a full-time lifeguard because she feels that she can do more for her community by training junior lifeguards. “I will take all of this knowledge back to the kids,” she said of her training session in Santa Barbara.
Recent news about a virtual war between drug cartels and Mexican law enforcement has reduced tourism in Baja by nearly 70 percent, but several of the guards visiting Santa Barbara said that most of the problems are in Tijuana. For the most part, the consensus seemed to be that staying inside after dark and avoiding sketchy neighborhoods was the best way to avoid being harmed. “They are only killing each other,” one of the guards said of the cartels and police. The further south one goes, they said, the less dangerous it becomes. “Ensenada is becoming more dangerous every day, but it’s still the safest city in Baja California Norte,” said Jose de Jesus, one of two Ensenada lifeguards participating in last week’s training. Ensenada, a few hours south of Rosarito, has only four lifeguards for its expanse of sandy beaches.
After three days of training, the group of guards returned to Baja with their heads packed full of new knowledge, but Menzies said that the Santa Barbarans they had interacted with gained something, too. “We learned a lot from them,” he said. “They don’t have a lot, and were able to show us some new techniques they had improvised to overcome a lack of some pieces of equipment.” Menzies also said that he was very happy to have made friends with them, and said plans were afoot to visit this spring, bringing some paddleboards that they can use for rescues.