Passages: Robert “Bob” Burnside, Founding President, U.S. Lifesaving Association, Dies At 87

Bob Burnside - Photo Courtesy: ISHOF

Robert “Bob” Burnside, Founding President, United States Lifesaving Association and 2014 Paragon Award / Aquatic Safety passes away, December 11, 2019 (May 20, 1932 – December 11, 2019)

Bob was perhaps the best known and most iconic lifeguard in the United States. His contributions to water safety are extraordinary. His love of aquatics was probably most influenced by his stepfather, 1920 Olympian and ISHOF Honoree, Stubby (Harold Herman) Krueger, and his mother, Jane Mackenzie, who was a Ziegfeld Follies dancer.

In his early years, Bob was selected 22 times to the “All American Swim Team”, and three times to the “All American Water Polo Team”. In high school, he was the national record holder in the 100-yard backstroke and the 120-yard IM. He was the first high school swimmer in the US to break the one-minute barrier in the 100-yard backstroke!

Bob was hired as an ocean lifeguard by Los Angeles County in 1951. When a representative of Surf Lifesaving Australia met with Los Angeles County leaders, Bob was appointed to become the president of what was to be called the “Surf Life Saving Association of America”, created solely to compete in an international lifesaving competition to be held in Australia during the year of the 1956 Olympics. Bob was a member of that team, which had never competed in an international lifesaving competition. Bob placed third in the international belt race at Torquay Beach.

In 1963, Bob invited lifeguards from various lifeguard agencies in Southern California to meet and discuss the concept of creating a true national association of professional ocean lifeguards. The various delegates agreed, and in 1964, the “Surf Life Saving Association of America” was formally created as a nonprofit organization of professional beach lifeguards. Bob was elected president and served in that capacity for four years. The organization changed its name twice, and it is known today as the “United States Lifesaving Association”.

In 1967, Bob served as manager of a new competition team, which toured and competed in Australia and in New Zealand. The following year, 1968, he toured the East Coast of the US to promote membership and to broaden the interest in and to help move the organization toward a true national base. Bob designed and produced the revolutionary plastic “Burnside Rescue Can” (patrol can), which is now a standard for lifeguards worldwide, and an iconic symbol for beach lifeguards. It was the symbol for the TV Series “Baywatch”.


Bob Burnside – Photo Courtesy: ISHOF

Professionally, in Los Angeles, Bob was instrumental as a member of the affirmative action committee to mandate women’s rights to take the beach lifeguard test that led to the hiring of the first female ocean lifeguards by the department. He eventually rose to become the chief lifeguard of Los Angeles County. During his tenure, Los Angeles County created the first lifeguard paramedic program, a hyperbaric chamber, lifeguard certification program and pioneered the “prevention first” concept in lifeguarding. Previously the profession had focused primarily on “reaction” to people in distress, rather than “preventing” distress. Also, during his tenure, most of the municipal beach lifeguard agencies in Los Angeles County were merged into a single county agency, which continues to exist today.


Photo Courtesy:

Bob is the founder of “Club Tortuga” a USLA approved Mexican water safety development project. As part of this operation, the first Spanish beach lifeguard training manual was developed, primarily as a translation of the USLA Training Manual. He also organized the development of a video depicting lifeguard issues throughout Mexico and coordinated on-site training and political support for Mexican lifeguards. Those efforts established Mexico’s first government beach lifeguard employees, now serving under the state fire division chief.

Bob earned the Australian Bronze Medallion, the Canadian and Royal Lifesaving Instructors Certificate, the New Zealand Instructor Certification and the American Red Cross Instructor Certificate for first aid and water safety. He has been certified by the USCG as a rescue board operator and he was part of the first certified Los Angeles County Diving Scuba Instructors and a longtime member of the Department’s underwater rescue and recovery unit, which was the first such team in the West!

Bob was a Grand champion in World Body Surfing in 1989, and for 13 consecutive years, the winner in his age division. He has been a masters division national champion twelve times at the USLA National Lifeguard Championships in the Iron Man, swim rescue board and rescue race events. He has been a national master’s division swim champion and a National Dorymen’s Association Champion, and winner of the Masters Inter-Mountain Downhill Ski Championship!

Burnside will be missed by the many lifeguards around the world who he helped, and befriended through the years.

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2 years ago

I was on the US 1956 lOS COUNTY LIFE GUARD TEAM. BOB was a great team member. He will be missed.

Spike Beck
2 years ago

A legend. He saw the future and dedicated his life to making it happen.
I was on the 67 team when Bob was the manager. No one was a better ambassador. One of the greatest of all watermen.

Paul becskehazy
2 years ago

RIP Chief