After years of budget cuts and tight staffing, San Diego's overworked Lifeguard Service is finally getting reinforcements and new resources.
City lifeguards perform several thousand rescues a year, from the ocean to bays, rivers, and cliffs.
But they comprise a relatively small and aging force – 112, full time -- that's needed more personnel, advanced equipment and training.
That's now starting to happen.
Over the past year, with city funding now flowing from better economic conditions, long-term "need assessments" and division audits have pointed the lifeguards toward staffing and training adjustments, to address growing "workforce gaps" that opened during recessionary times.
The full-time roster has been boosted by 12 percent over the past three years -- just as more than 40 percent of the members are within five years of being eligible to retire.
They beefed up the river rescue team in advance of the El Nino winter forecast, and are looking to add manpower to the Dive Team and Boating Safety Unit, which handles increasingly more advanced and high-tech watercraft.
“That goes a long way to addressing some of the concerns that we had at the Boating Safety Unit with potential retirement and folks leaving,” Lifeguards Chief Rick Wurts said in an interview Monday. “It helps address many of the training issues that we have here. So that will be a phenomenal improvement in our boating safety operation."
Recent negotiations with the city have led to special pay and salary increases for various training specialties, and expedited career advancements.
The Lifeguards Division also is being tasked with stepped-up recruiting and "diversity" efforts beyond its junior lifeguards program – especially targeting local swim and water polo teams.
"It's that level of swimmer that we're looking for – and reaching out to different teams across the region has been a tremendous help,” Wurts told NBC 7. “And if you talk to a lot of our lifeguards you'll find they have swimming, water polo backgrounds -- or even are expert surfers."
A hearing on a variety of lifeguard workforce issues is scheduled by the City Council's Audit Committee Wednesday afternoon.