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Lifeguard staffing, ‘an all-year project,’ unhindered by pandemic, captain says

Lifeguards watch over a largely empty Marine Street Beach in La Jolla last week.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Despite all the ups and downs of the COVID-19 pandemic, including beach closures, followed by the recommendation that people socialize only outside at open spaces like a beach, one thing consistent has been the presence of lifeguards on La Jolla’s coastline.

The number of lifeguards patrolling the beaches is planned a year in advance. Staffing currently is at its summer peak, which will remain until the fall when tourists return home and children go back to school.

“Even though summer really starts around spring break, our start to summer is June 11, so we are at a full complement,” said San Diego marine safety Capt. Maureen Hodges. “We are full throttle this time of year.”

She said the cycle of staffing is like a bell curve. After the summer peak, which ends around Labor Day, the number of lifeguards slowly starts to taper off. Weekend staffing remains high, but there are fewer guards on weekdays in September and October.

In October, the city holds tryouts for the following summer.

As the weather gets cooler from November to March, the number of lifeguards decreases even more to include only the 20 to 25 permanent guards stationed across La Jolla.

In February, the city opens tryouts again. As the spring approaches, seasonal employees start to report back, and more and more staff is added until summer.

Hodges said about 200 seasonal employees return every summer citywide; about 65 of them report to La Jolla. There are 110 permanent lifeguards, including the 20 to 25 in La Jolla.

“Staffing is an all-year project, so by the time we got to this time last year, we had our full staff already in place,” Hodges said. “Regardless of what was going to happen in the pandemic, we were going to be at full staffing. It takes the whole year to plan and prep that and get those in place. We never deviated from the staffing plan.

“We had people on our seasonal staff who had travel plans or other jobs and at the last minute realized they couldn’t go anywhere. So we found that we got good interest from people who tried out to work for us.”

That’s not to say the ever-changing rules and regulations didn’t impact the guards on duty.

To deter gatherings, San Diego beaches were closed in March 2020. At that time, “our focus was on contacting people to let them know,” Hodges said.

When the beaches reopened six weeks later, visitors initially were asked to maintain physical distancing, and gathering and sitting or lying on the sand were not allowed.

The regulations “helped it be more of a gradual increase [in visitors] and kept it from being an explosion,” Hodges said. “Once we got to full summer and people rediscovered the beach as an option for outdoor recreation, we still had some stay-at-home orders, but we were back to full complement of staff because there was a steady stream of people. It was manageable but busy.”

Knowing lifeguards were still needed, while other jobs were hemorrhaging employees, those who had applied before returned to the lifeguard department last fall for deployment this summer, and there was a new wave of candidates in need of steady employment.

“We got more candidates because there was so much uncertainty with the economy and the job market, but we were certain,” Hodges said.

Thus, the lifeguards were ready for the busy summer season.

Lifeguards watch over La Jolla Cove from a tower on the edge of Scripps Park.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

“All our pocket beaches are open. All our stations open at 9 a.m. and close with the sunset. We have multiple guards at every station, and there is a chunk of the day when everyone who is working that day is on duty,” Hodges said.

Once the busy Fourth of July weekend has passed, the city will shift its focus toward hiring for next summer. The application is already available on the city’s website at sandiego.gov/lifeguards/about/employ.

“Our biggest priority is sending everyone home safely at the end of the day,” Hodges said. “We want people to swim at a guarded beach with an open station and check in with the lifeguard when you get there for the best places to swim, how conditions are changing. ... Our priority is to educate, help people out and prevent and rescue.” ◆