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Saturday, April 26, 2008 | Lifeguard Lt. Andy Lerum is the picture-perfect San Diego lifeguard. The 42-year-old is tall, lean, blond and tanned with an easy smile and piercing, violet blue eyes that speak of years squinting out at the Pacific Ocean through a pair of high-powered binoculars.

Lerum’s office, perched on the boardwalk in front of the Mission Beach Giant Dipper, is festooned with faded old pictures of San Diego lifeguards, oars, letters of thanks and memorials to famous local watermen. Above his desk sits a surfboard rack. “Doesn’t everyone have a board rack in their office?” he quips.

We sat down with Lerum to talk about the city’s recently imposed alcohol ban on city beaches, the biggest storm he’s seen in his 22 years as a San Diego Lifeguard, and whether it’s OK to jump off the end of the Ocean Beach Pier with a surfboard.

How much of an effect has the booze ban had on your work, in terms of the amount of people using the beach, and the amount of trouble you have to deal with?

Well, we’ve definitely seen an effect. The first effect we saw, after the first busy weekend without the alcohol, was the amount of trash. It was remarkably different. There was less trash piled up on the sand where the trash cans are, they used to overflow with trash. There’s just less trash being accumulated on the boardwalk and the beach.

As far as the alcohol-related problems, definitely, again, just like the police have said, there has just been, generally, less enforcement contacts needed. There’s less agitated people, it seems, on the beach. There’s less confrontation.

Back when booze was allowed, in the Pacific Beach area, especially, our lifeguards were having to work in that crowd and there was a rumbling of almost mob mentality, when that many people, in close proximity, were under the influence of alcohol, to the point where our lifeguards felt unsafe.

Are you hoping, presuming that that mob mentality isn’t going to be there this summer?

We’re clearly seeing a more family-oriented crowd. Quite frankly, the organized drinkfests that used to occur, people just aren’t coming to them because they don’t exist. They’re likely going somewhere else to do the same thing, but it’s not on San Diego’s ocean beaches.

One thing we’re just starting to see now is when people had alcohol on board and they went into the water, they were unpredictable, oftentimes they made bad choices, they went swimming but because they were under the influence they couldn’t necessarily swim very well, they would lose their stamina and they would become rescues.

Now, with more of a family oriented beach, there are a lot more kids using the beach, and a lot more kids are getting rescued. So our rescue count, potentially, could go up quite a bit because of the alcohol ban.

So, do you enforce that ban on the beaches?

Yes, we work side-by-side with San Diego police. San Diego police take the lead on the enforcement and, together, we do a lot of public information. We talk to the public every day, we have links on our website to explain the new rules, and we generally get compliance with just warnings and education.

Generally, if you catch someone down there drinking a beer on the beach, what happens?

The rule is so new that generally people are caught off guard, so we just inform them of the new rules and ask for their compliance and they usually comply. We’re starting to see a trend, now that the rule’s been in existence for several months, some of the beachgoers that know the rule are choosing to try and get away with it. In a few cases, we’ve seen people stop at 7-Eleven and get a Big Gulp and instead of it being filled with soda, it’s filled with beer.

In those cases, it’s pretty obvious that they knew the rule and chose to not comply with it, so we’ve written a few tickets and so have the San Diego police.

In one way, the alcohol ban and smoking ban have increased the number of enforcement contacts for those categories, but it pales in comparison to the work created with alcohol on board. There’s more problems with people under the influence than with enforcing the no alcohol rule.

How are the San Diego Lifeguards doing, funding-wise?

Well, for a few years, money’s been super tight in the city of San Diego, and for a few years, every dollar we spend needs to be categorized as critical spending. So that’s the way we’ve been operating for the last several years.

Is there anything essential that you guys are lacking?

Well, I can comment that the city of San Diego, the City Council and the decision-makers in the city have recognized the lifeguard service for the value that it is and they’ve funded us appropriately, as best they can in these current conditions.

Let me lighten it up a bit. When we get big swells in San Diego and La Jolla Cove starts to break, what are the rules for surfers? Are they allowed to surf out there?

There’s actually a line where there’s a surfing zone one side and no surfing allowed the other side. The line is directly north from the Clam, the cliff where people used to jump from (just south of the beach in La Jolla Cove).

We have a jet ski that goes out and patrols during big swells. We try to keep people to the north of that line, partly because that’s the law, but more importantly because that law was created for public safety reasons. If they’re on the south side of that line, potentially, if they catch a wave, they can get blown into the reef, so we want to keep them on the side of safety.

One of our editors lives in Ocean Beach. He’s always wondered if he can run out to the end of the pier and jump off with his surfboard. What’s the rules there?

Good question. No. There’s actually a municipal code that specifies jumping into the Pacific Ocean from a height greater than five feet is not allowed. That includes the Clam and the piers, and there’s a specific ordinance for the Ocean Beach Pier that says you can’t jump off it.

Then there’s one that says you can’t be in the water within 75 feet of the pier anyway, so likely you couldn’t jump into the water and not be within 75 feet of the pier anyway. Then, of course, if we warn you not to and you jump anyway, that’s failure to comply.

So he definitely shouldn’t do it.

You’ve been here 22 years. In that time, you must have seen some pretty big storms hit San Diego. Are there any storms that really stick out over the years?

I’ll never forget, when I was a seasonal lifeguard in 1988, when the big January storm came in and blew out a big tower that used to be offshore called the M.E.L. Tower. It was a platform out there used by Scripps Institution of Oceanography and it got washed in, there was all sorts of debris being washed ashore.

My job was to stand on the Mission Beach boardwalk and keep people away from there because the boardwalk was literally engulfed by wave after wave after wave. In fact there were some surges of waves that went up across the boardwalk, across the peninsula and actually swept cars across Mission Boulevard.

I actually saw a big bay window get blown in on some oceanfront property. I looked inside the house and saw furniture floating around.

People had to evacuate, they would have gotten clobbered. I remember holding onto a light pole on the boardwalk and it was a good thing I was holding on because the waves were just washing everybody through. That certainly opened my eyes. I was a new lifeguard and that showed me the power that the ocean has, for sure.

Being a lifeguard in San Diego is a dream job for a lot of people not just in America, but around the world. Is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Oh I think so.

I think if you asked any lifeguard in San Diego they would say the same.

It’s a dream come true, for me certainly. I think, for me and my colleagues, we chose this occupation for the lifestyle, not necessarily for anything else. There’s not too many places in the world where you can actually live and make a decent wage and get to do what we all love to do, which is hang out at the beach and make rescues and keep people safe.

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted Wednesday. In light of the news Friday of a fatal shark attack off of the coast of Solana Beach, we followed-up with Lerum with several questions about the safety of San Diego beaches.

Is it safe for San Diegans to go in the water right now?

I’d like to start off with saying that every recreational activity has its risks whether it be a sport, whether hang gliding or cliff climbing or recreation in the ocean. Being in the water has it’s risks, it has dangers — rip currents other marine mammals, the action of the surf and of course, as we now see, sharks are a real threat.

However, keeping it in perspective, over 40 million people visited San Diego County beaches last year and this is the first shark attack in 12 years.

Why wouldn’t the city of San Diego shut down its beaches today?

Quite honestly there’s very little difference from today to a day ago. The only difference is a shark has mistaken a human for its normal prey and that has caused a lot of reaction among the public, of course. But, in fact, everyday there are sharks in San Diego’s waters. That’s been the case for hundreds of years.

A couple of safety tips as it relates to sharks specifically: It’s always a good idea to be with a group — safety in numbers. You’re a little bit more vulnerable where you’re alone. It didn’t protect this individual who was killed today. But he had friends attempting to help him. If he was alone there would have been absolutely no chance.

What was your initial reaction to the news this morning?

I was saddened for the family and victim and a bit surprised that it was a fatal attack but I wasn’t overwhelmingly surprised that there was an encounter with a shark.

Is there any additional precautions San Diego lifeguards are taking this weekend in light of the news?

Certainly we’ll have an increased awareness for large sharks to be in San Diego’s waters. We’ll keep a more vigilant lookout into some of the outer areas. Some of our vessels will be on patrol. We’d also like to let people know that in areas where there are normally seals there is an increased likelihood that sharks will be patrolling those waters.

As a lifeguard and someone who spends a lot of time in the ocean, did this make you more wary of getting into the water?

It adds to the aggregate knowledge that we all have about the danger of the ocean. And it certainly sends a chill up my spine to think next time I’m in the water there’s a natural predator out there. Again that’s been there since the beginning of time in San Diego. People need to understand that entering the water, there’s risks. As lifeguards we try to mitigate risks for people. In this situation we’re limited to what we can do to prevent people from getting attacked because it’s so infrequent and unpredictable.

— Interview by WILL CARLESS and SAM HODGSON

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