After bystanders saw a man being pounded against the surf off Sunset Cliffs Friday they tried to use a nearby call box to call 911.
They weren't able to because the call box was broken.
“It's always happening here. It's one of the most dangerous spots in San Diego,” visitor Hobie Tillman said.
The beauty at Bird Rock draws a crowd, and more than a few daredevils have found themselves overwhelmed by the rugged cliff face and surf.
Tillman is a regular visitor. He said the call box has been broken for three years.
“It's real serious. That's your only line of defense really to let someone know what is happening,” Tillman said.
First responders verified the phone failure Friday, after they arrived to rescue the 23-year-old man trapped against sunset cliffs by the high surf.
“He got pounded on these rocks for a while. He looked like he was actually drowning,” witness Mary Wall said.
Despite the malfunction there was no delay in the response. The victim was safely returned to the street level without injury.
Lifeguard Sergeant Ed Harris told NBC7 there are five shoreline call boxes in the county, but he said the system is antiquated and unreliable.
The problem is compounded by poor cell reception. Portable phones aren't always at the ready.
“You leave [your cell phone] up in your car, if anything happens you are on your own and hopefully somebody sees you,” Tillman said.
Fortunately for Friday's victim Sunset Cliffs was packed with holiday weekend shutter bugs, which proved more reliable an emergency than the phone for that express purpose.
The phones ring directly into the main lifeguard station and, while lifeguards are responsible for responding to those calls, they are not responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the call boxes.