San Diego Lifeguard Services sergeant and union spokesperson Ed Harris said San Diego lifeguards are good at spotting emergencies and capable of treating all types of medical situations, but the massive crowds make it harder during the hot summer months.
“The more crowded it is, the more challenging it becomes for us to spot people in distress,” Harris said. “As it gets more and more crowded, more things happen. So when you talk about medical aid especially, everything that happens to humans happens on the beach.”
Many emergencies have nothing to do with the water or sea life. Harris said every year lifeguards make a few cardiac-arrest saves, which is why each lifeguard vehicle is equipped with shock devices.
“We literally have millions of people going to the beach every year. We deal with a wide range of medical aid, everything from seizures to strokes. In fact, people have babies on the beach,” Harris said.
In the water, lifeguards deal with everything from rip currents to stingray stings. Harris said rip currents are of biggest concern in the spring, after heavy winter surf digs holes in the sand. Harris said the rip currents tend to ease throughout the summer as the holes are filled in by south swells.
During the winter, Harris said more experienced people are in the water and — whether it’s big surf or a medical emergency — rescues are serious.
“In the summertime it’s just the volume. It’s more the standard rip-current rescues. Due to the numbers, you get more often people going to dive into the water and hit their head on the bottom. They’re not as experienced,” Harris said. “We get it all the time. We get people that take surfboards to the head or they cut their leg with the fin of the board, or run into each other or over each other.”
As the water warms, stingrays come closer to shore and stings become a common injury too.
“It’s not uncommon for us to have a couple a day, but I’m sure you’ve seen in the past where we have people lined up in buckets all the way out the door, and we could do a hundred in a day or 50 in a day,” Harris said.
While many medical emergencies at the beach are handled by lifeguards, who are all emergency medical technicians, San Diego Fire-Rescue medics are called for more serious emergencies.
“Fortunately for us, San Diego Fire has a very good medic program,” Harris said. “Medics are always pretty close for us. We get medics on the scene usually within five minutes.”
For low-level issues — like a wound that requires stitches or a sprain — Harris said lifeguards direct people to local hospitals and urgent-care facilities.
Anderson Medical Center, located at 1945 Garnet Ave., is one urgent-care facility with a lead physician who has more than 20 years of treating beach-related injuries — be it surfing injury or sea-life-inflicted wound.
With a background in sports medicine and as SeaWorld’s medical director, Dr. Ken Anderson has treated everything from surfers with dislocated shoulders and fin cuts to animal trainers with stingray stings and seal bites.
“I got a call from University of San Diego the other week because they had a student who had been bitten by a seal, and they were like, ‘What do we do with this?’” he said. “So we talked about that type of thing. It’s a different type of thing to be exposed to, but I have developed experience with that over the years.”
A physician with experience like that is invaluable to the beach community, especially in the summer.
“A big focus of ours is urgent care and open access,” Anderson said. “That’s why we have the extended hours and why we don’t make appointments. It’s because we want to take care of injuries and minor emergencies, and we do very well at that.”