A rough and risky ocean rescue off Ocean Beach early Wednesday morning has San Diego lifeguards warning that they're dangerously understaffed.
Especially from sunset to sunrise.
Around 1 a.m., according to authorities, a drunken man weighing well over 300 pounds jumped off the Ocean Beach pier near the cafe and wound up unconscious in the water.
It took four lifeguards to save him -- the only two available from Mission Bay, and the only two on duty in La Jolla, who arrived as backup 20 minutes into the rescue.
"Even with the four lifeguards, we couldn't lift the guy over the rail,” says Lifeguard Sgt. Ed Harris, who piloted a 22-foot Boston Whaler from the Lifeguard Service’s Mission Bay compound to the offshore rescue scene north of the Ocean Beach pier.
“We just couldn't get him into the boat,” Harris said of the man, whose brother and friends made emergency calls after he leaped off the pier. “He was slippery, we had no grip, he was just too heavy. We had to turn the boat off, the motor, and bring him in through the lower part next to the motor, the transom -- and use a mat to get him back there, get him slid in on his stomach.
“He's a complete dead weight. He's unconscious at this point. And it took everything we had to bring that body into the boat."
Harris, with his lifeguard partner in the water, and the two lifeguards from La Jolla who jumped off the pier on their arrival were the only rescue coverage available along San Diego's stretch of coast from sunset to 8 a.m.
Each of the two-man night crews, according to Harris, worries about being overwhelmed by big emergencies before "call-back" lifeguards arrive from home.
"If you take that as a scenario and you put it as a sailboat on the rocks -- which we've all had -- with multiple victims,” Harris added, “we would've lost some of the people, because we have only one guard that's able to get into the water."
Harris serves off-duty as spokesman for the San Diego Lifeguards Assn., a city-recognized employee bargaining unit affiliated with the Teamsters Union.
He says the Fire-Rescue Department’s Lifeguard Service, with seven positions left vacant since November, badly needs a budget boost in next fiscal year's funding cycle at City Hall.
"We are seeing a degradation of our ability to protect the public, across the entire city or the entire coastline,” Harris warned. “What we want the public to know is that these beaches aren't as safe as they have been, and we're concerned about that."
So far, no formal responses have been forthcoming to NBC 7’s requests made to various offices at City Hall for comment.
One official indicated, on a ‘background’ basis, that there’s grumbling because the incident may offer the Lifeguards Association "leverage" at budget time.
Harris says he's personally shared his concerns with Mayor Filner, and gotten a good reception.