Off-season lifeguards may be reduced

It’s not very likely a lifeguard will spot someone swept to sea by a rip current in the middle of the winter. That’s when guards operate with a stripped-down workforce and can only patrol some parts of the city’s beaches once a day.

If Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff’s budget proposal is passed, the odds of rescue will be even longer. And he’s OK with that.

By cutting full-time staff during the off-season, Kiff believes Newport can save money while still meeting its public safety obligations. The guards disagree. They say they won’t be able to keep the beaches safe enough, and tourism could ultimately suffer as a result.

Soon, the City Council will have to decide.

“Today, our beach protection is best in the summer when people expect to use it,” Kiff wrote in an e-mail. “That will continue ... but I see no reason why Newport Beach taxpayers should fund the rescue of someone who chooses to go out in the water in the middle of January.”

His proposal would reduce the city’s “permanent” lifeguard staff from 13 people to eight. Those guards patrol the beaches in the off-season, train the 200 or so seasonal lifeguards each year, and are among those who operate more sophisticated equipment such as rescue boats and scuba gear.

The number of guards during the summer months would potentially stay the same.

Brent Jacobsen, president of the Lifeguard Management Assn., said the cuts would leave just a few guards to respond to emergencies on any given day during the off-season, from the end of October until the beginning of March.

“It’s simply not enough to run an operation like that,” he said. “It’s just not safe.”

Newport has nine miles of oceanfront beaches and a few bay beaches. Today, lifeguards are able to dash into the water within 10 minutes of receiving a call anywhere in the city, Jacobsen said. For ocean beaches, it’s within five minutes.

While those times may increase under the new proposal, Jacobsen said the real danger is not being able to warn swimmers before they potentially get into danger.

Guards during the off-season would probably not be able to patrol beaches in Corona del Mar, by the Wedge, and near the Santa Ana River Jetties — the extremities of the city’s coastlines — Jacobsen said. Instead, they would have to respond when emergency strikes.

Kiff said the reduced staffing might not make that much of a difference: “The ocean is a hazardous environment … We have lost people even at full staffing,” he wrote.

Also, not enough people swim in the cold months to warrant the patrols, said Councilwoman Leslie Daigle. She said the city observed beachgoers during the winter months and found many go to run, walk and enjoy their coffee, but few venture into the surf. At times, the water dips below 60 degrees.

“The beach promenade is everyone’s favorite park,” she said about the colder months. “But it’s unclear how many of them are actually going in the water.”

The permanent guards sometimes make that call; they determine how busy the beach is each day and if the city has to call in some part-timers. Some of most crowded days can be during winter hot-spells, Jacobsen said. On Friday, when many students were on spring break and the weather was nice, 75,000 people visited Newport beaches.

Permanent guards are typically EMTs and some have thousands of hours guarding, Jacobsen said. Seasonal guards, many of whom are also very experienced, are required to have 55 hours of first aid training and 48 hours of ocean lifeguard training.

Staffing in Huntington Beach is comparable to Newport. The city beaches there have 13 permanent guards and 120 seasonal guards. Mike Beuerlein, a lieutenant in Huntington and president of the California Surf Lifesaving Assn., said these staffing levels were based on historical rescues and work well.

“We understand these are tough economic times,” he said, “but at the same time, if you pull public safety off the beach, there will be a greater chance of someone drowning.”

Jacobsen warns that the rest of the city could feel the effects, if the beaches are less staffed during the winter.

"[Visitors] have an expectation of being safe,” he said. “They’re going to stop coming.”

The City Council still has to approve the budget, probably at some point in May.

“If they want to lower the level of service, we are going to do our best,” Jacobsen said.