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Rest Easy, Chief Burnside

Bob Burnside, a lifesaving legend who organized and served as founding president of the United States Lifesaving Association, died peacefully at his home in Utah Dec. 11. He was 87.

Bob’s contributions to lifesaving, both nationally and internationally, are too extensive to mention in this short note. He organized and was part of a team that accepted an invitation in 1956 to attend a surf carnival sponsored by Surf Life Saving Australia. The U.S. team brought rescue buoys, rescue tubes, and Malibu balsa surfboards, which revolutionized surfing in Australia. Many years later the Australians adopted rescue tubes as a primary rescue device.

Burnside organized lifeguards from various California lifeguard agencies and convinced them to found, in 1964, what would come to be named the United States Lifesaving Association.

Due to concerns over injuries to lifeguards who were struck by metal rescue cans, Burnside invented the modern plastic rescue buoy, which remains in use today in a form very close to the original. He served as a lifeguard and ultimately chief lifeguard for Los Angeles County. Bob visited Sacramento often in the 1970s and 1980s to lobby lawmakers for funding and professional standards. He offered training and support to lifeguards in Mexico, living there for an extended period, and created a fund that continues to support Mexican lifesaving.

Bob was a consummate waterman who won many awards as a competitive bodysurfer and competed regularly into his later years at the USLA National Lifeguard Championships. At 50, he switched his passion to focus on frozen water to become a competitive downhill skier and continued to be a Diamond Run skier for the rest of his life. In 2014 he was awarded the Paragon Award for Aquatic Safety by the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Bob Burnside lived a full life and we are all better for it.

Details are pending for both a lifeguard flag ceremony at the Los Angeles Fire Department Lifeguard Headquarters as well as a celebration of life paddle-out memorial.

To view an overview of Bob speaking click here.

Photo Credit - Joel Gitelson

B. Chris Brewster is liaison officer for the United States Lifesaving Association. Reach him at

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