Thursday, June 14, 2007 | Thanks to a boost in funds from the state budget, San Diego’s state park beaches should have adequate money and enough part-time employees to fully staff lifeguard towers this summer.

That’s in contrast to last summer, when budget cuts resulted in a dearth of lifeguards on San Diego’s state-run beaches, lifeguards warned San Diegans not to visit those beaches, and a local state senator began a campaign for increased funding for San Diego lifeguards.

A Budget Buoy

  • The Issue: San Diego state park lifeguards have received a budget boost this year that should allow them to fully staff through the busy summer season, but critics say the service is still critically understaffed at non-peak times.
  • What It Means: With nine full-time staff to guard 15 miles of beaches, lifeguards say staffing levels should be fine this summer.
  • The Bigger Picture: The state controls 15 miles of beaches in and around the city of San Diego. Those beaches are visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year. Drowning is the number one cause of accidental death in California state parks.

But while local state lifeguard officials say they have enough money to hire lifeguards for the summer, they caution that the state park budget for temporary lifeguards fluctuates annually, and that the state parks simply have too few full-time lifeguards to work with.

San Diego’s roughly 15 miles of state-run beaches, which include Torrey Pines State Reserve beach in the north and Silver Strand State Beach in the south, are currently patrolled by nine full-time lifeguards. In contrast, the city of San Diego’s 17 miles of beaches are patrolled by more than 10 times as many permanent lifeguards.

“Compared to our city beaches and to many other beaches in the state, our state beaches in San Diego are woefully understaffed,” said state Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego.

Though the state beaches tend to be less frequented than busy city beaches, some, including the Torrey Pines State Reserve, are often crowded, especially at weekends and during the summer season.

All the lifeguard agencies in San Diego County hire seasonal workers throughout the peak summer season to augment their staff. Ideally, the state lifeguard team in San Diego swells to more than 100 people during the peak summer season. In recent years, however, budget cuts have made less money available for local state park managers to hire seasonal lifeguards. Local state beaches have been left struggling with far fewer lifeguards than they need, former and current lifeguard officials said.

Ronilee Clark, superintendent of state parks in San Diego, said California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger augmented the state park budget by $500,000 statewide for aquatic safety. Clark said the bulk of that money went to Southern California and that San Diego received $200,000. Clarke said she also managed to squeeze an extra $163,000 from her base budget, meaning she has a total of $363,000 extra to spend on staffing this year than she did two years ago.

That $363,000 is enough to pay for about 19,600 hours of experienced part-time lifeguards. That’s equivalent to staffing the beaches with seven extra lifeguards working eight-hour shifts for every day of the year.

“Our lifeguard system this year is better than it has been in seven years,” Clark said.

The provision of extra funding has partly quieted critics.

“Last year, I said: ‘Don’t come and swim at state park beaches,’ but this year, we’re doing better,” said John Knight, who has been working as a part-time lifeguard at Torrey Pines State Reserve for 27 years and is the local representative of the state law enforcement officers union.

Brian Ketterer, a state park lifeguard supervisor for San Diego’s north coast, said even with the extra money the state has given the region’s state parks San Diego is not at ideal staffing levels. He said it is becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified lifeguards and that he foresees a shortage of seasonal lifeguards across the county in coming years.

“We have the money right now, it’s a matter of finding the people that can do the job,” Ketterer said.

College students, who have traditionally made up much of the seasonal lifeguard staff, are these days more inclined to work for a fast-food restaurant or a franchise that will offer them similar wages but much less responsibility, Ketterer said.

Even if San Diego’s state parks can find people to fill the seasonal vacancies, the county’s state beaches will remain seriously understaffed for much of the rest of the year, said Chris Brewster, an ex-San Diego lifeguard chief and president of the United States Lifesaving Association.

Brewster said the state parks are “not even in the ballpark” when it comes to providing a safe number of lifeguards year-round. While he welcomed the extra funding that the park system has received this year, Brewster said that money is not going to help much during the winter months, when the waves are bigger, the ocean is colder and most of San Diego’s deaths by drowning occur.

“While state lifeguards are undoubtedly happy to have seen some improvements, it’s a little like being punched repeatedly in the face and then someone stops punching you as often,” Brewster said.

Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death in California state parks, according to the state parks’ website.

Ketterer stressed that, while the number of lifeguards is not ideal, San Diegans are always safe if they swim near lifeguards. On a recent sunny morning on Torrey Pines State Reserve beach, only two of seven lifeguard towers were open and beachgoers crowded in front those two towers. Some spilled out further down the beach, however, and children swam about a quarter mile away from the nearest lifeguard tower.

The shortage of lifeguards on state beaches, especially during the winter, means that local city lifeguard teams are often called as backup.

Patrick Vergne, lifeguard chief for the city of Del Mar, said his lifeguards often go out of their way to check local state beaches that are not being patrolled by state lifeguards. During summer months, Vergne said, his lifeguards are frequently called to assist state lifeguard teams on Torrey Pines State Reserve, a beach he said is not being adequately patrolled by state lifeguards.

Brewster said state lifeguards “effectively abandon” north Torrey Pines State Reserve beach — an area fraught with dangerous rip currents because of a nearby river mouth — because they do not have enough employees to patrol it.

Kehoe said she will continue to push for more money for San Diego’s state beach lifeguards. She said California State Parks are understaffed across the board, but that with hundreds of thousands of Californians visiting San Diego’s beaches, the state has an obligation to ensure that those beaches are as safe as possible.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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