Most keepers tended to have long experience at fishing, or other maritime occupations, or had worked their way steadily through the ranks of the U.S. Life-Saving Service. Although many of the keepers transferred from station to station, a great many of the men remained at one station, or within a small radius.
The long years of service in one area made the men experts on the weather and surf conditions. Furthermore, because the keepers tended to select men from the local community for their crews, the units of the Service, unlike many government agencies, remained principally a local affair.
The men who made up the crews of the Service were known as surfman, because those on the East Coast, where the Service began, launched their boats from open beaches into the surf. Surfmen could be no older than forty-five and had to be physically fit and adept at handling an oar. A glance at the muster rolls of the Service shows that most surfmen listed their occupations before entering the Life-Saving Service as "fisherman" or "mariner." The number of men composing a crew was determined by the number of oars needed to pull the largest boat at the station. This meant the crews ranged from six to eight, but by the turn of the century, some stations were staffed with at least ten men. Because keepers selected the crews, regulations were enacted to prevent nepotism. Many surfmen, like the keepers, remained at one station for long periods of time, but some moved on to other stations in order to be promoted. Surfmen were ranked by order of their experience, with Surfman Number 1 being the most experienced and second in command of a station.
In 1889, the Service became uniformed. The idea grew from stations on the Great Lakes which had adopted a naval uniform. Initially, this did not result in an esprit de corps but instead resulted in a shout of outrage. The surfmen were expected to pay for the uniforms out of their meager salaries.
The rescues performed by the men of the U.S. Life-Saving Service captured the attention of nineteenth century America. Indeed, the sight of a keeper standing erect in the stern of his small boat, grasping his sweep oar, urging on his men at their oars as the boat rose and fell in high surf, could cause a reporter to write exciting copy. Terms such as "soldiers of the surf" and "storm warriors" were used to describe the lifesavers. The men did perform amazing rescues, but by far the largest amount of work for the crews revolved around drilling (practicing) with the rescue equipment, patrol and lookout duty, and general station upkeep.