ROME, Italy — There are all the usual cute blonds and brunettes, but these aren't your ordinary Baywatch beach babes.
And sunbathers on Roman shores expecting a Pamela Anderson lookalike to offer lifesaving resuscitation may be in for a rude shock: rescue services here have turned over many duties to specially trained dogs.
In order to tackle a high number of drowning deaths, the Latium region, where Rome is located, this summer launched the project, called Safe Sea, in partnership with the Dogs Rescue Operations School of the Tyrrhenian Sea, which specializes in preparing dogs for lifeguards missions.
In the last 20 years, the dogs of the Tyrrhenian rescue center have saved more that 200 people at sea, according to center director, Roberto Gasbarri.
“They put citizens in contact with coast guards, spreading awareness on sea risks especially among children who love the dogs,” Gasbarri said.
As a result, this summer a common sight on the beaches of the Latium region is a specially trained Labrador, Golden Retriever or Terranova stationed beneath a red gazebo looking out over the sea’s horizon, ready to intervene when it sees a person in distress.
According to their handlers, the dogs' sensitive hearing and acute sight is ideal for spotting tragedies in the making, and they know exactly what to do in case of sea emergency.
Each dog works in team with its human lifeguard “colleague,” who is also its trainer. The duo is trained to rescue drowning swimmers. The dogs are willing to jump directly from a moving speedboat or jet into the water to rescue a swimmer.
A rapid call system enables the lifeguard to contact the coast guard boats and helicopters in case of major danger.
The deployment of dogs as lifeguards here was first envisaged as a way to patrol free-access beaches.
The Roman coast features miles of unkept and deserted shorelines. Swimmers on these beaches are largely left alone to enjoy the sun, the sparkling water and, inevitably, the danger.
An added benefit is the dogs' ability to detect summer fires and other environmental risks that occur in the parks and natural reserves that lie adjacent to many of these isolated beaches.
Other Italian coast cities, including Amalfi, Genoa and Trieste, have used dog lifeguards to patrol the beaches in the past. At a national level, there are 250 dogs trained to collaborate in sea rescue operations with the coast guard authorities, the Red Cross, the navy and the civil protection unit that is responsible for tackling natural emergencies in the country.
In most cases, the three-year rescue courses are jointly held for both the dog and the human "partner" to develop a deep communication channel in case of emergency.
So far, only four dogs — Terranovas and Labradors — are in service in the Latium region, and used only on the weekends, when beaches are most crowded. The regional authorities intend to deploy more during the upcoming high-season, when most Roman citizens take their annual seaside vacation.
A budget of 7,200 euros ($9,420) has been allocated for the Safe Sea project — not enough, say many Romans who would like to see more of these four-legged lifeguards running along their sandy coasts.
On Ostia beach, the most popular of Rome, the Labrador “officer” has turned into the major summer attraction for both citizens and tourists.
“I rely much more on the dogs than the humans if I were drowning,” 20-year-old Piero said. “It’s their nature to save people. But more of these animals are needed here, especially considering all the children that venture alone out at sea.”
Summer sea deaths still occur on a daily base.
In late July, two foreign children drowned in the north of Italy despite their father's desperate efforts to save them.