A San Diego Lifeguards rescue vehicle. Photo by Alexander Nguyen

As a resident of La Jolla, lifeguards are a daily sight in my neighborhood. I find it comforting to know that these highly trained and motivated city employees are always on hand should any of us ever need assistance. I have equal respect for their public safety partners in the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.

San Diego’s lifeguards have been patrolling our coast and bays for over 100 years. They have become national leaders in not only standard water rescues, but also in-surf vessel operation, marine firefighting, swift water rescue and coastal cliff rescue.

Despite their unique operational needs, the lifeguards have historically been pigeon-holed as a division in the city’s Fire-Rescue Department, limiting their ability to perform their core mission of providing high quality and cost-efficient safety services in San Diego’s aquatic and coastal environs. I believe we should allow the lifeguards equal footing to advocate for their mission and unique operational needs. It is time the San Diego Lifeguard Services be given its own voice as an independent Marine Safety Department.

Often working on their own or in small teams, the San Diego lifeguards are responsible for all coastal water rescues, swift water and inland flood rescues, coastal cliff rescues, marine firefighting on Mission Bay and a host of other tasks. With only 100 permanent staff and 200 seasonal staff, lifeguards in 2018 performed over 6,500 water rescues and 99 cliff rescues, protecting over 17 million visitors and residents at our city’s beaches and bays. And as the populations of both residents and visitors continue to grow, so too do the needs of the lifeguard service.

Joe LaCava

Currently, as a division within the Fire-Rescue Department, the needs of the Lifeguard Services are often overlooked. This is not surprising, since the head of the lifeguard division, the Lifeguard Chief, falls below the Fire Chief and the Assistant Chief in the department’s hierarchy. This is not to discredit the Fire Chief or his deputies. It is evidence of the need for self-advocacy for the unique operational, staffing and equipment needs of lifeguards

The San Diego lifeguards have provided our city a good bang for our public safety buck. They minimize surplus overtime, use in-house mechanics to maintain their vessels and specialty vehicles, and they entered into a public-private partnership with Toyota for their fleet of vehicles, saving the City nearly $4 million over the next 10 years.

We must be thoughtful with our public safety dollars. When the city’s organizational structure leads to less than cost-efficient operations, we must act. As a City Councilmember, I will seek to organize firefighters and lifeguards as separate and independent departments. It is time that lifeguards operate as an independent Marine Safety Department with the Lifeguard Chief as a department head.

Joe LaCava is a candidate for City of San Diego Council District 1. He is also a public policy consultant and has been appointed to numerous city boards.

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