A herdsman of millions: An interview with Palanga’s chief lifeguard

  • 2015-09-02
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

The choppy, treacherous Baltic Sea is always on the prowl for its next victim, but Jonas Piroznikas, the veteran chief of lifeguard services in the Lithuanian resort of Palanga, is about to give a sigh of relief: for the third consecutive year, his men have managed to keep safe the millions of holidaymakers who have visited the resort’s 16-kilometre teeming strip of sand. Now Piroznikas is packing up for his farm in the Lithuanian hinterland. “I really need to change the tunes. Until the next season,” he admitted to The Baltic Times.

How is Palanga, the largest Baltic resort, unusual in terms of providing lifeguard services?

Indeed, Palanga is the largest Baltic resort and its size puts an additional strain on us. We tend to a 16-kilometre strip, stretching from Nemirseta (a beach on the outskirts of Palanga is known for its nudist beach-L.J) to Sventoji (a settlement near the Lithuanian-Latvian border-L.J.). How many sunbathers Palanga beach attracts tells this fact best: it packs them in four months here as many as the Klaipeda beach in five years. Imagine the work we have to do to handle this army of people. Many of them speak different languages, are from different cultures and often are inhibitions-free on the beach. Frankly, the latter makes the lifeguards’ job harder every year. The average lifeguard’s pay is around the minimum wage, but each lifeguard must have a good command of foreign languages, be courteous - even though this is very hard with rowdy vacationers trying to impose their rules - and, certainly, stay alert.

To answer your question, I am not so familiar with Estonian lifeguard service, but at an event organised by the European Union I talked recently to some lifeguards from the Latvian resort of Ventspils.

From what I learnt the Latvian resort doesn’t come close to Palanga in terms either of its size or the number of people that the lifeguards have to handle. Lifeguarding seems to be pretty easy there - just because the Baltic waters are very shallow there and one can walk far into the sea without fear of being engulfed by the current. From that standpoint, the Baltic Sea off the coast of Palanga is very treacherous. The Latvians seemed to be quite surprised to hear my stories about the tricky underwater currents in Palanga.

How do you get prepared for your job each year? Do you keep a keen eye on what is going at the most popular beaches worldwide?

Indeed, each off-season is not just for relaxing, but for learning new things too. In fact, as a chief lifeguard, I spend quite a lot of time browsing the Internet, searching for good practice elsewhere and catching up with what’s new. Not everything, obviously, can be applied in Palanga. Some of the things I’ve learnt throughout the years of observation and, from experience, I’ve come up with some conclusions and rules that just cannot be copy-pasted. For example, most instances of drowning in Palanga occurs when people are about to end their vacation. I call them “last dip sinking.” At that time people get more excited, braver and, obviously, let their guards down, which often leads to the horrible disaster of loss of life. Time-wise, the time after 4 o’clock is when the largest number of emergencies happen.

Nationality-wise, who are the hardest to handle on the beach?

Western Europeans are perhaps the easiest to deal with – they are respectful and abide by the rules. Russians tend to be lawbreakers most often, I’d say. Through we had quite few Russian tourists this summer- a result of the ruble troubles –but many of those I had to encounter were tough and mean. Most of the standoffs arose from the lifeguards’ warnings not to wade into the sea with the red flag hoisted. To many I had to explain patiently myself why there were supposed to get out of the water.

Do find the Baltic Sea dangerous?

It is especially dangerous, note it. First of all, because of the very strong underwater currents. Besides this, gusts often come out of the blue. If they blow shoreward, it does not pose any threat, even if the wind is really strong. But the side winds, especially when they are blowing from north or south-west, are very precarious as they are able to churn up swelling waves; the currents become extremely tricky then. Sometimes the sea is flat, but the ever-changing currents still do their evil work. Few know that even though the wind has changed direction, the currents might keep going in the opposite direction for another day or so. This is when holes appear on the bottom.

Interestingly, at Palanga lifeguard post, we never raise the green flag to indicate that the sea does not pose danger. I’ve decided to stick with the policy after learning that relatives of a drowned man in Germany sued and won a hefty settlement from a local lifeguard service. The man had drowned while the green flag was raised and though the lifeguards argued in court the tragedy happened because of the swimmer’s behavior, the judges held the lifeguard service responsible for the death. After learning about the case, I ordered that the green flag should not be used on Palanga beach.

How has the lifeguard service changed in Palanga over the nine years that you have been in charge of it? What are the main changes that you have implemented on the beach?

I worked for the police before taking over the Palanga lifeguard service, so being organized and responsible has always been part of my character. When I started working in Palanga, I established a water motorcycle club which started offering services for a fee. As a result, the organisation, which had been cash-strapped until that point, started muscling up financially, and became able to obtain more necessary lifeguard equipment and master skills every year. As a former three-time water motorcycle champion, I came up  later with an idea of organising local and even regional water motorcycle competition, which would also draw much-needed attention to the lifeguard mission. Some of the participants, I remember, would poke fun at me, saying that I knew each wave here so well that I ought to be disqualified from the competition. But seriously, the more time I spent in Palanga the better acquainted I got with the sea, the shoreline and my duty as chief lifeguard.

To go back to your question, the technical and human capabilities have changed enormously over the years. And, in fact, they are still changing very rapidly. Look, we’ve just sent up a surveillance drone, which is a huge stride forward in the job. As a matter of fact, we are the first in the Baltic region to have started using the equipment for the purpose. No bragging, I talked after the launch with a German lifeguard service and they showered us with praise over the introduction. It appears we’ve outstripped even the Germans.

How has the treatment of lifeguards evolved over the years?

Speaking of people’s approach towards the life-savers, I have seen some pretty significant changes. In the beginning, I remember, people would have no respect to the guards whatsoever. Some of the nastiest ones would curse in their face or even get physical.

I could not put up with it, so I came up with an idea of cam-recording all the dealings we had on the beach. I fixed the cam right on the tip of my lifeguard helmet, to be seen by all. After approaching a lawbreaker, I’d warn him from far that our conversation was being recorded. Soon, the other lifeguards started using cam-recorders too. And this innovation has worked wonders: it made beachgoers more obedient and also more responsible for their actions. Video-recording is still an important part of our job today.

In the beginning, yet in the pre-dawn of the Emergency Response Center. If there was an emergency, vacationers would call the police number (02), but the line would be terribly busy most of the time. Then it occurred to me to create our own emergency number, which would be accessible and easy to get through to. Now, most of the people know the lifeguard service number, 1509, by heart. First, it was free of charge, but after being swamped with prank calls to send a pizza or a sex worker to the caller, we decided to ask the phone service providers charge a fee for the calls. It worked – the abundance of the phoney calls has dropped significantly.

Our rescue tactics have also changed. At one time, the lifeguards would tend to a drowning man in the water, without paying much attention to what had preceded [the incident]. In other words, inebriated persons could freely wade into the sea without receiving a warning from the lifeguard. After we decided to ramp up the prevention work and clamp down on vacationers’ misbehaviour on the beach before their feet got wet,  drowning rates have dropped considerably. Alcohol has always been the main culprit for tragedies in the water.

I’ve heard that you’ve lobbied for higher fines for misbehaviour on the beach. Can you tell more about them?

When a person violates public order on the beach, he or she is usually intoxicated. This is the first thing. Second, such people tend to go in the sea even though the red flag prohibits it. And finally, every buzzed person tends to offend others, either on the beach or in the water. At the moment, the violators would get away with a very symbolic fine of three euros. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? I’ve talked to some of the Lithuanian parliamentarians and I’m intending to ask the mayor of Palanga to try to significantly increase the fine – up to 300 euro, as a matter of fact. It hurts me to see violators disdaining and mocking us over the ridiculously low fines. I hope this will get changed soon.  

How often do you get to see reckless behaviour on the beach? Can such behaviour be blamed on alcohol alone?

Very often, in fact. As a rule, most of the people are buzzed or heavily inebriated. Not surprisingly, there’s a vivid saying in Lithuania about drunken persons: “(For them) the sea is up to their knees.” I’ve asked the same question thousands of times to wasted people: “why are you risking your life? Is it worth it?”  They would accost me in a rude manner, insisting they wanted to refresh themselves in water and that I cannot meddle with their life. Understandably, most would pay little attention to the warning they might end up in a morgue if they continue misbehaving.  Some of the chaps on the beach would sometimes seek to show off their manliness and bravery to others. Again, a single step into the sea might be the line between life and death.

You, obviously, have many incredible beach stories to tell. Have any been especially memorable?

Indeed, I’ve witnessed plenty of moments of joy after successful rescue operations and, alas, streams of tears upon a lethal ending. For some reason, I still cannot forget a case that happened, if I am not mistaken, eight or nine years ago. One evening, I remember, we received a call from a man, who said that his daughter had drowned. He spoke in a very calm, casual voice as if talking about a weekly fishing trip. Upon our arrival, his behavior also seemed very out of the ordinary, I’d say negligent. After 20 minutes or so, we pulled his daughter, a 16-year-old girl, out of the sea. We’d learned from others there she was mentally disabled. Again, the father showed no emotions whatsoever seeing his daughter lifeless. He is perhaps the only parent I’ve ever seen throughout the career who took a tragedy in such a inappropriate way.  Perhaps because of his behavior, the police later started a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the drowning. The investigators came empty-handed, but the thought it might have been a malicious crime has never left me.

Nevertheless, you’re coming off with a clean sheet for the third year in a row - this season, once again, no drownings have been reported. It is a great achievement, you have to agree.
Well, we still have a couple of weeks to go, so I’d rather keep working than start bragging.