The first stations consisted of one building measuring 42 by 18 feet. As the Service grew, so did the size of the stations. The early buildings were strictly utilitarian, but by the 1880s, they were becoming more fashionable and usually were made up of two or three structures. The main building contained the offices, boat house, and berthing area for the crew. It usually had a lookout tower on the roof. Some were built to resemble a Swiss chalet and one was even designed with a clock tower. By the 1890s, the architect A. B. Bibb designed stations that looked much like beach resort homes with lookout towers.
The Life-Saving Service operated under a dual chain of command. The Life-Saving District Superintendents reported directly to Kimball and were responsible for most of the administrative matters of the stations, including such matters as pay and supply. The other channel of command was the Inspector of Life Saving Stations, a Captain in the U.S. Revenue Marine Service. The inspector assigned assistant inspectors, usually lieutenants of the U.S. Revenue Marine Service, to each district and they were responsible for the operational matters concerning the Service.
The assistant inspectors held drills, investigations, and so forth. The Inspector of the Life-Saving Service also reported to Kimball, thus creating a system of checks and balances.
The U.S. Life-Saving Service had two means of rescuing people on board ships stranded near shore: by boat and by a strong line stretched from the beach to the wrecked vessel. The Service's boats were either a 700 to 1,000 pound, self-bailing, self-righting surfboat pulled by six surfmen with twelve to eighteen foot oars, or a two to four ton lifeboat. The surfboat could be pulled on a cart by crewmen, or horses, to a site near a wreck and then launched into the surf. The lifeboat, following a design originated in England , could be fitted with sails for work further offshore and was used in very heavy weather. Some crews, at first, viewed the lifeboat with skepticism because of its great weight and bulk. The skepticism soon changed and crews began to regard it as "something almost supernatural," for it enabled them to provide assistance "when the most powerful tugs and steam-craft refused to go out of the harbor. ..."
When a ship wrecked close to shore and the seas were too rough for boats, then the Service could use another method to reach the stranded mariners by stringing a strong hawser (line) from the shore to the ship. To propel the line to the ship, a cannon-like gun, called the Lyle gun, was used. This shot a projectile up to 600 yards. The projectile carried a small messenger line by which the shipwrecked sailors were able to pull out the heavier hawser.