City's Policy on Lifeguards Is Criticized

Times Staff Writer

The drowning of a woman off North Pacific Beach last weekend has raised questions about the city's policy of waiting until the summer months to guard some local beaches.

Berniece Benay, 60, of Pacific Beach, died Saturday, the 12th person to drown at a city beach this year.

In another incident Saturday, passers-by rescued a 12-year-old boy from a "near drowning" at the same unguarded beach. By the time lifeguards arrived on the scene from their posts in South Pacific Beach, the boy was revived and breathing, said lifeguard Kelly Clark.

"With lifeguards, we could prevent the rescue before it happens, by giving warnings," said John Greenhalgh, another lifeguard.

After Saturday's incidents, lifeguards in the field recommended that the beach be staffed with lifeguards the next day. Capt. Bill Norton, a lifeguard supervisor with the city, approved the request, and lifeguards rescued two of the 4,000 swimmers at the beach on Sunday.

"It's unfortunate that someone has to die before we put lifeguards there," said lifeguard Tom Thayer.

Norton, however said that 4,000 is not a large number compared to the 15,000 to 20,000 people that flocked to other San Diego beaches on Saturday and Sunday.

"North Pacific Beach is not one of the most heavily used beaches," Norton said. "People can go to the other (south)side of the (Crystal)pier and swim if they want to have lifeguards."

Norton said that the policy to deploy lifeguards at some of the beaches only in the summer months is not a matter of finances, but of a personnel shortage.

About 150 city lifeguards work during the summer months and 73 lifeguards work year-round, Norton said.

While the availability of lifeguards varies throughout the city, most state beaches are guarded year around.

Greg Abbott, seasonal supervisor of Silver Strand State Beach, said that the majority of rescues are made by other swimmers, not lifeguards.

"You actually need more lifeguards when there are fewer swimmers because people help each other," Abbott said.

Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, South Pacific Beach, Children's Pool, La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores Beach are guarded throughout the year. Lifeguards begin weekend duty at Torrey Pines and Scripps Beach after the Easter holiday. North Pacific Beach and Windansea Beach are guarded from mid-June through September, the summer vacation for San Diego public schools.

"You can't wait until the kids get out of school to put lifeguards on duty," Abbott said. "The kids that come to the beach everyday are not the ones we have to rescue."

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