On the beach

Career highlights: MIKE FRAZER, LAFD

1980: Became an ocean lifeguard for Los Angeles County.

1992: Promoted to lifeguard captain, working as the Zuma Beach captain in Malibu, Calif.

1997: Assigned as administrative captain.

1998: Promoted to administrative section chief and began a series of IT upgrades including the phone system, scheduling and payroll systems and the installation of PCs at every lifeguard main station.

2001: Promoted to chief lifeguard and put together the team that developed the Coast Monitoring Network.

Mike Frazer, LAFD

Ion Hartunian

Frazer leads a monitoring system that combines life saving with data sharing

One day, a woman wearing a back brace walked up to Mike Frazer's lifeguard tower.

'Are you Mike Frazer?' she asked.

He said he was.

Crying, she gave him a hug and said he had rescued her years ago when she had been trapped under a pier piling during a storm. She had been motivated throughout her rehabilitation by the thought that one day she would be able to thank him in person.

Such is a day in the life of Frazer, chief lifeguard for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Frazer has rescued more than 500 people since 1980.

For years, Frazer has used his training and skills as a champion swimmer to save lives. Now, as chief lifeguard, he uses technology as yet another life-saving tool.

Coastal view

Frazer spearheads the Los Angeles County Coast Monitoring Network, which includes 20 remote cameras, weather stations and water thermometers installed along the county's 72-mile coastline. In 2001, the project won a national competition for a Technology Opportunities Program grant from the Commerce Department.

The network allows lifeguard captains to more effectively deploy resources on the beach. For example, a quick check of a camera at headquarters could indicate that a school group has shown up at an unguarded remote beach. A lifeguard would be dispatched to the beach immediately.

The network uses 20 Panasonic WV-CS854 dome cameras inside clear weatherproof housings. Each camera links to a Panasonic WJ-NT104 Ethernet interface unit.

Besides keeping a lookout for swimmers and beach-goers, the cameras also keep a visual time-lapse record of coastal erosion and storm drain emissions. This data is shared with the Army Corps of Engineers, the California Coastal Commission, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the National Weather Service.

Sharing the network's data among the different government agencies and academic groups has been surprisingly easy, Frazer said. 'There wasn't any jurisdictional friction at all. Each time we met with another agency, new opportunities opened up. Now we're inundated with people who want to participate in the program.'

The network has freed up resources in unexpected ways. For example, NWS used to rely on the lifeguards to provide weather and ocean data. 'The lifeguards would put thermometers in the water and eyeball the surf size,' Frazer said. 'Now the NWS doesn't have to call us anymore.
They can get the surf size, swell direction, water temperature, everything they need from the network. It's all automated.'

Frazer grew up on the beaches of Venice, Calif. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in political science from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, he took a full-time job as a county lifeguard. His career took a turn to the IT side when an administrative position opened up. The job would put him in a business suit and off the beach.

Starting from scratch

'My fellow lifeguards thought I was crazy,' he said. 'But I knew it was a golden opportunity.'

Frazer got the job and inherited an administrative mess. 'Nothing was automated, and no database applications existed. Our computers were 286s, which we thought were cutting-edge.'

After a few years of progressively more responsible administrative positions, which garnered Frazer two L.A. County productivity awards for developing database applications and other tools for boosting efficiency, he returned to the lifeguard division. At one point, Frazer was performing three jobs at once: administrative captain, administrative section chief and assistant chief.

In 2000, Frazer formed a team to upgrade a loose network of PBX phone systems to a countywide voice over IP system. The Nortel Option 11 system helped link the county's mainland offices with Catalina Island and continues to save the county about $100,000 each year.

Up each morning at 4:15 a.m. so he can swim for an hour before work, Frazer supervises more than 800 employees. Most of them are college-educated and world-class swimmers. 'They're all independent thinkers, but I can take it,' he said.

'Mike truly likes to motivate other people,' said John Beecher, a lifeguard and network technologist who was part of the team that helped set up the VOIP system. 'Our prime objective on the beach is to make sure that people don't drown. Mike and the county have lessened the burden for those of us down in the trenches' so the lifeguards can focus more on their true mission of guarding life.

'He's never too busy for a two-minute meeting,' said Michael Bateman, an ocean lifeguard for the county. 'His door is literally always open.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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