A lifeguard at Bethells Beach has highlighted a problem not unknown to other emergency services when he was abused by a man with two small children after warning the man of a hazard in the area of sea they were about to enter.

Ambulance staff and others sometimes find their advice unwelcome and even suffer abuse for their trouble.

They have the misfortune to deal with drunks but the incident the lifeguard described in a letter to the Herald published yesterday involved an individual he thought "respectable" until the fellow opened his mouth.

He called the lifeguard "fun police", followed by an expletive. The lifeguard's letter says it was the first time in 12 years of volunteering that he had encountered this reaction, which is heartening in one respect. It suggests those who patrol our beaches to save lives rarely meet such rank ingratitude. But the phrase "fun police" suggests this could be a relatively new viewpoint in danger of taking hold.

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The vigilance for health and safety promoted so insistently by public authorities these days can be irksome at times. But most of the time it is advice, not an order, As the abused lifeguard said, "We cannot enforce what we do."

He retreated and kept an eye on their safety from a distance. That selfless dedication to the safety of others, whether they deserve it or not, is typical of volunteers such as surf lifeguards, St John officers on duty at sports grounds and part-time firefighters.

If they are sometimes more cautious and safety conscious than seems necessary they should be respected or at least forgiven. If the advice seems unduly risk-averse and restrictive, there are ways for adults to assert their right to decide for themselves without being rude.

In turn, the well trained volunteer will know not to be insistent unless the peril is real and imminent. They have done their utmost when they warn of danger.

They know they will have to do more if those who ignore their warning get into trouble. If that happens, those who ignore the warnings will be putting the responders at risk too. That raises the question, should those obliged to respond be invested with authority to order rather than merely advise, thereby reducing the risk to themselves?

It would be a sad day for summer holidays if it even came to that. The relationship between beachgoers and lifeguards would be altered. Lifeguards might really be regarded as "fun police" and patrolled beaches would soon be avoided.

New Zealanders' enjoyment of the sea is subject to few rules and restrictions. They do not need a licence to be in charge of boats, maritime safety agencies urge them to use lifejackets, have marine radios and tell the Coastguard where they are going but this is only advice, not law. That may be one of the reasons we have one of the worst drowning rates in the world, twice Australia's rate.

Water Safety NZ feels its messages are not getting through to boaties. Lifeguards generally do not say the same of bathers. Not everyone swims between their flags but it can safely be said everyone at the beach is glad of their presence. They are volunteers, putting themselves, their knowledge and skills at the service of fun-lovers, and sensible people heed what they say.