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Four Los Angeles County lifeguards sat around a table in a conference room at the Venice Beach headquarters.

Serious life-or-death meetings have been held in this room. This wasn't one of them.Hoots of laughter overrode the dialogue in a videotaped episode of "Baywatch," the most popular television show in the world. Set on the beaches of Los Angeles County, the show is based on the work and lives of a fictitious group of county lifeguards.

Because the show purports to depict their lives, most of the lifeguards have watched at least once. And while the show's producers make a serious effort to be accurate, the needs of TV and the imaginations of the writers sometimes conspire to make the series something less than true-to-life.

On the screen, lifeguards tended to a near-drowning victim, placing her on a backboard.

"Nice straps," said Lisa Dial, a 26-year-old guard from Santa Monica. Her colleagues laughed. The actors had buckled just two black straps across the victim's body - one above her chest and one across her hips.

Kevin Marble, a 38-year-old lifeguard who works at Two Harbors in Catalina, shook his head.

"They would have had towels against her head, and straps on her chin, forehead, shoulders, hips, thighs and feet. She wouldn't be able to move," he said.

"They've got this person very photogenically strapped."

A scene in which a "Baywatch" lifeguard pulled a 300-pound dory out of the surf, then collapsed on the sand, was also a big no-no.

"One of the major rules is never turn your back on the ocean," said Lee Davis, 31, a guard from El Segundo. "Here, he's got his back turned to the surf and he's lying in front of that 300-pound boat."

Two scenes in which women lost consciousness and drifted to a scenic, squeaky-clean ocean floor also drew laughs.

"I love that ocean bottom," said Nicole Merrill, a 24-year-old guard from Playa del Rey. "It's exactly the same in both scenes, and the water is so clear. Maybe in Catalina, but not at my beach."

The show's demographics also were a departure from reality, the guards said. The crew of "Baywatch" consists of three women and three men. County lifeguard statistics show that only about 18 percent of full-time guards are women.

The show portrays 38-year-old Lt. Mitch Buchannon as the old man of the sea. In real life, the average age for full-time county lifeguards is 45.

While the guards enjoy poking fun at a show that gets things "wrong" in catering to a Hollywood sensibility, they are quick to point out that "Baywatch" has given their profession a high profile and greater respect.

"Some of it gives lifeguards a bad image, but we get a lot of exposure as a result of it," Davis said. "The main thing for people to realize is that when they're in the water, it's a different element.

"As guards, we learn to respect the ocean and be prepared. And that's what we want to show people. How to respect the ocean, so they can have fun."



So, you want to be a lifeguard

The actors who inhabit "Baywatch" might have a tough time making it into the ranks of the real Los Angeles County Lifeguards.

Just to make it to rookie school at the Lifeguard Training Academy, you have to have 20-30 uncorrected vision, be able to complete a 1,000-meter ocean swim, and be 18 years old with a valid California driver's license.

Lifeguard trials are held whenever the department needs new recruits. The last trials, held in April, attracted 225 applicants.

The test began with a 1,000-meter swim around the pier at Venice Beach. The top 80 finishers were invited for an oral interview followed by a physical exam and a treadmill stress test. Of those, 53 made it into rookie school, and 48 completed the program.

Successful applicants start their careers as part-time employees making $15 per hour, then attend 80 hours of rookie school - a series of training sessions covering conduct, safety, rescue techniques and first aid. All lifeguards must become re-certified every year.

- Los Angeles Daily News