Newport Beach lifeguard boat Sea Watch III pulls in behind a set wave to rescue two swimmers stuck in a rip current that held them in the impact zone and headed out to sea. The swimmers climbed aboard the rescue boat, took a break, and were returned safely when the swell dropped. (DON LEACH, Daily Pilot / June 10, 2011)

He could be working in any major Southern California hospital, with his master's in clinical psychology from Pepperdine University and bachelor's from UCLA.

Instead, Kevin Selna, 33, chose a different public health setting: the beach.

Selna, who patrols the coastline of Crystal Cove State Park, is one of about 70 lifeguards-peace officers for the state park system who watch the shores and enforce laws up and down the coast. While he carries a gun and a badge, most full-time lifeguards do not.

So when news reports revealed guards' generous pensions — one of the reasons Selna took the job — and the nearly $150,000 in salaries paid to Newport Beach supervisors, people around the world got furious. They imagined Pamela Anderson on "Baywatch," and flooded officials' phones and inboxes to demand changes.

Residents and politicians are now reevaluating career lifeguards' worth, and many towns are considering budget cuts or pension reforms. The guards — suddenly emblematic of excessive public-employee compensation — have tried to combat nagging perceptions. They say that their thorough training, sophisticated equipment and years of experience prevent thousands of people from drowning each year.

But city officials in Newport Beach and other coastal communities in California say they need to put a numerical value on those who save lives, especially in these austere times.

"The issue at the end of the day is, 'What is the expense to the taxpayer?'" says Newport Beach City Councilwoman Leslie Daigle, who supported slashing half of the city's full-time guard positions. "I think it's too high. It's not fiscally sustainable."

Newport's not alone, either in its generous compensation or in its proposed cuts.

San Diego, Huntington Beach and other coastal municipalities have considered reducing staffing or reforming guards' pensions.

And while Newport's full-time guards, supervisors and chiefs received all of the notoriety, the state's top three highest-paid guards are actually from the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Service, the largest guard agency in the state.

Three of its chiefs made more than $190,000 in wages during 2009, according to the state Controller's salary database, and that didn't include any county-paid retirement or health benefits.

Like firefighters and police officers, full-time lifeguards say they also deserve to be well-paid and receive pensions. These pensions are meant to reward all public-safety personnel who risk their lives on the job.

"You're running out into the surf when people are dying," says Chris Brewster, president of the U.S. Lifesaving Assn. "It is a highly stressful job."


'The waves get big here'


In today's economy, some officials along the coast are asking similar questions about career lifeguards: What is their appropriate compensation? How many do we need to sufficiently cover the beach?

Many, while cutting back on pension benefits, still defend their pay.

"We think about what adds value to the community, and saving people from the water is important," says Newport Councilman Keith Curry, who initially voted to raise lifeguard pensions but now supports reforms. "You don't want to pay them more than minimum wage — until it's your kid who's drowning."

One of the city's most experienced guards is Brian O'Rourke, Newport's rescue boat supervisor. He has been manning the 29-foot yellow "Sea Watch" boats since 1989.