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Starting when he was just 17 years old, Justin Whittles has been a lifeguard for the last six years. 

His father is a lifeguard and so is his brother.

"My father was definitely the one that got me involved and got me to want to do it," Whittles said. "He put that thought process in my head and supported me the whole way."

Whittles, like many other guardians of the surf, began his process to becoming a lifeguard through the Ocean City Junior Beach Patrol Program.

The program runs four days from the Tuesday after the Fourth of July until mid-August.

In the program, participants — who are young as 10 or old as 17 — learn basic lifeguarding skills, such as how to use rescue buoys, how to treat people for neck and back injuries and how to rescue people from the surf.

Participants have to wait until they are 10 because beach patrol officials want to ensure the program is not used as a "learn to swim program," said Caroline Oakey, coordinator for the Junior Beach Patrol program.

In total, there were roughly 225 participants in the program during the summer of 2017.

The program teaches participants the skills they will need if they are to become lifeguards, Oakey added. Participants use lifesaving devices used by the beach patrol such as buoys, paddle boards and a landline.

"They also learn how to compete and it’s great because they are new to each other and then they’ll cheer each other on," she said. "And I’ve never heard a kid say negative things towards each other during the event."

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In participants' first year, they learn how to use the buoy. In their second, the landline. The third year they get to use the paddleboard. And for their fourth year, participants help to run the crews.

Oakey never participated in the program as a child, she said, but she sees the value in it and has loved working in the program.

The program has prepared future lifeguards well, Oakey said, because they learn the same techniques and skills that are taught to the full time beach patrol members at their rookie academy.

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Participants always receive up-to-date training on issues covered by the Ocean City Beach Patrol, including how to properly deal with a head and neck injury, spot rip currents and safely remove somebody in distress from the water, Oakey said.

The program is doubly as effective for those who go on to become instructors in the program once they can no longer participate, she added.

"They definitely come into it knowing certain skills, especially since a lot of our surf rescue technicians that were in the junior beach patrol program were junior beach patrol instructors, so they are learning the same skills," she said.

"So when they do become an SRT, they seem a little better prepared because they know how to work it, do it and they have already been teaching it to kids."

For current lifeguard Joshua Wilder, the program was a major part of him becoming a member of the Ocean City Beach Patrol, he said.

"Going through the camp actually taught me the surf rescue skills, navigating the surf, identifying rip currents and all around oceanography," he said.

Wilder, who is also a crew chief in the beach patrol, is one of five chiefs on staff for the summer of 2017 to have gone through the program.

There are also two assistant crew chiefs who have gone through the program.

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Wilder was 10 years old when he started the program, and he was in it for five years.

"For me, a lot of it was getting to know the lifeguards who are a part of the camp and knowing who was going to be out there when I became a guard," he said. "That was a lot of fun, seeing the same faces every year."

After being an instructor for the Junior Beach Patrol program for two years, Wilder said he went on to become a member of the beach patrol, and has been in the beach patrol now for eight years.

Whittles, too, did the program for five years, although he did not go on to be an instructor for the program.

The program worked for him because, as a participant, he was able to make his way up.

"It’s cool because each year is a little different," he said. "Every year, you move up a level so you get to do something different so it’s not always the same camp.

"Some camps you go to in life and it’s the same thing every year but each year with junior beach patrol it changes, so it’s cool. Each level you do something different."

On Twitter @hughesg19

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