Nick Lerma has patrolled San Diego’s beaches since 1979, scanning waves for signs of rip currents and swimmers in distress. But in the last decade, he’s noticed something else.

Though annual beach attendance has grown, the number of rescues by Lerma and other city lifeguards has shrunk. Since a peak in 1997, the rate of rescues per beachgoer has fallen by 63 percent. (The rate of drownings has fallen, too.)

Lerma isn’t certain why the decline has happened, but said weather cycles, better equipment and an older demographic of lifeguards are probably major factors in the trend.

Weather: Lifeguards watch three weather signals to estimate the risk of drownings. Warm weather draws more people to the beach, warm water draws more people into the waves and moderate currents put more people at risk.

Why moderate currents? Lerma said they tend to be more dangerous than stronger currents because the risk is less intuitive. Most swimmers know to avoid big surf but find gauging the safety of moderate conditions trickier.

Lerma said El Niño and La Niña years bring out the riskiest combination of weather conditions and tend to spur the most rescues. The last major El Niño event, according to national weather officials, occurred from 1997 to 1998.

Weather doesn’t fully explain why rescues have precipitously declined in recent years, but Lerma said the absence of major events like El Niño and La Niña may partially explain why lifeguards haven’t seen drastic spikes like the middle of the 1990s.

Better Equipment: The city’s lifeguards began using one-person Jet Skis in the late 1980s, but Lerma said it didn’t become a really successful tool until the last decade.

The city expanded them to ocean beaches in 1993 and bought more over time. Today, most stations along the coast have their own Jet Skis.

Lerma likens their purpose to sheepdogs. A single lifeguard on a Jet Ski can cover more space in less time than a two-person inflatable boat. He said it can outrun waves better and faces less risk of tipping over, too.

Older Lifeguards: When Lerma looks at his colleagues today, he recognizes an older bunch than previous decades. It’s mostly the same group of people the city hired with him many years ago.

With age and experience, Lerma said they’ve learned to focus more on prevention. They recognize rip currents and tell swimmers, sometimes from the seat of a Jet Ski, which areas they should avoid.

Though each rescue represents successfully saving a person’s life, Lerma said lifeguards have realized over time that each represents a failure on their part, too.

“It means we’ve lost a certain amount of control of the beach,” Lerma said. “If you’re an eight year old kid, it could change your life. They might want to be a lifeguard when they grow up or they might never want to swim again.”

In that respect, lifeguards have been failing less often in recent years.

Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He writes about local government, creates infographics and handles the Fact Check Blog. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.

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