Sept. 3, and the department was ready with a beefed-up staff to handle the annual mass-migration of tourists and locals to coastal beaches.
“There is full summer staffing at all Mission Bay beaches from now until the end of summer every day from Ocean Beach to Torrey Pines State Beach,” said San Diego Lifeguard Lt. John Everhart. “We base our summer schedule on the city school district being out.”
Everhart said the annual displacement of students, local and not, from classrooms to beaches adds greatly to the daily coastal population as does “people traveling with their kids out of school trying to get an early jump on summer vacation.”
Since spring, Everhart said lifeguards have been gradually “ramping up” equipment and personnel preparing for summer during which time medically certified seasonal lifeguards are added to bolster staff up and down the coast.
“We look forward to having our seasonal staff, who do a great job for us, back to work providing service during summer months,” Everhart said. “I would say our staff is more like triple what it is the slowest time of the year, in the middle of the winter.”
But, noted Everhart, how busy lifeguards actually are in relation to how many of them there are on duty compared to how many people are actually on the beach, varies considerably factoring in the time of the year and the weather on any given day.
“It’s all relative,” he said. “Typically, springtime is when we are the busiest per-guard we have on duty. On a hot weekend in the spring, when we don’t have full summer staffing, we can still get huge crowds. Right now [mid-June] we have normal summer staffing levels to handle moderate conditions and typical crowds.”
In the slower winter season, when lifeguard staffing is at its lowest, stormy weather can bring lots of unanticipated work for lifeguard rescue and beach teams alike.
“When you get big surf, tons of people go in the water,” Everhart said.
There is one day, though, during the year that is absolutely guaranteed busy: the Fourth of July holiday.
“Obviously, Fourth of July is our busiest day in terms of crowds,” Everhart said. “No matter what the weather, beaches are going to be packed with people who’ve been going there for 20 years.”
Initially concerned that much-needed lifeguard equipment and personnel requests might be left out of the recently approved city fiscal budget beginning July 1, San Diego Fire-Rescue Chief Javier Mainar, who oversees lifeguards, said the department ultimately fared well this year.
“They [lifeguards] have two boats for firefighting on Mission Bay and one was completely out of service and a new vessel is being purchased, and the other had an engine that needed to be replaced and both of these needs are being met,” Mainar said. “We also had concerns about not having enough relief lifeguards floating around to allow us to do training and reduce time for overtime, but the city funded three relief positions.”
For some time, said Mainar, lifeguards have sought to become part of the city’s wellness program that benefits both police and fire departments. This year, he said, that request was finally granted.
“It’s a very physical occupation and lifeguards were not part of that [Wellness] program,” he said. “I asked for $80,000 in funding per year, and the City Council approved that.”
The San Diego Fire Fighter Regional Wellness Program — fully funded by the city — initially started with a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). National studies show well developed and implemented wellness-fitness programs help secure the highest possible level of health to emergency personnel. These programs are also proven to be cost effective, typically by reducing the number of work-related injuries and lost workdays due to injury or illness.
Mainar said the City Council had concerns with the mayor’s proposed budget not containing the lifeguard positions in the Wellness Program.
“The mayor felt there was insufficient funding to grant that request at this time,” he said. “But since revenues came in a bit stronger, the Council said now we have additional revenue, so now they’re funding that request.”
“We’re ready for another busy summer,” concluded Everhart, pointing out San Diego’s beaches, regardless of the weather, are always a major draw.
“We stay busy year-round now,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing.”