SF officials grapple with keeping Ocean Beach users safe from the sea

San Francisco boasts what has been considered the most dangerous beach in the nation, but that doesn’t detract swimmers and surfers from enjoying the notoriously powerful currents on warm days.

But Ocean Beach — unlike Stinson Beach in Marin County, which is also under the management of the National Park Service — is not a designated place to swim and therefore has no lifeguards on duty.

The lack of lifeguards doesn’t prevent the thousands of people drawn to the 3.5 mile shoreline from taking a dip on sunny days when the famous San Francisco fog burns away.

Recent drownings and surf rescues at the beach, however, prompted city leaders to debate Thursday whether hiring lifeguards to patrol Ocean Beach would make the area safer, and called for more outreach to better alert out-of-towners of the dangers of rogue waves and riptides.

The dangers of Ocean Beach with rogue waves and riptides were underscored on April 16 when two 17-year-olds visiting The City from Vallejo drowned after being swept out to sea from the shoreline. In recent weeks, a senior and a surfer required rescuing on separate occasions.

In response to the deaths, Supervisor Eric Mar called for a safety hearing at Thursday’s Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee to discuss what improvements could be made at Ocean Beach to prevent future drownings.

Supervisor David Campos pressed both local and federal officials over the idea of having lifeguards on the beach.

But both Deputy Fire Chief of Operations Mark Gonzales and National Park Service spokesperson Howard Levitt strongly disagreed with the prospect of adding lifeguards to the beach.

“The presence of lifeguards or their stands would encourage more swimmers and that’s what we don’t want,” Gonzales said. Levitt said it would be “a formula for disaster.”

Campos, however, noted that people go in the water despite the lack of lifeguards, and compared the argument that having lifeguards on site would encourage more people to enter the waters with those who say giving condoms to people encourages them to have sex.

“It’s like safe sex,” Campos said. “People say, ‘Don’t give them condoms because then that promotes sex,’” Campos said. “Well, if they are going to have sex, well, give them condoms. I’d feel better if there was some sort of presence [of lifeguards at the beach].”

City resident John Jones, who grew up on Long Island swimming at Jones Beach where he himself faced the perils of riptides, supports having lifeguards present as a safety measure.

“I don’t understand how you could prevent drownings from riptide incidents without lifeguards on the beach. I don’t see how you can do it, however excellent the response times might be otherwise,” he said.

Supervisor Katy Tang, who called for the hearing with Mar, said the focus should be on educating visitors.

“Growing up here — even as someone who was on the swim team — I know that I would not dare surf in Ocean Beach,” Tang said. “There are visitors who are coming from out of town who may not understand just how dangerous it is no matter what signage you put on there.”

Levitt said that he was interested in exploring having a volunteer program to do more outreach. The Fire Department has committed to handing out new safety brochures on site when there are heavy surf advisories.

Ocean Beach also has a beach patrol program, which reaches out to beachgoers about the dangers of the surf. Last year, the patrol rescued 52 people from life-threatening circumstances and made 21,000 safety advisory contacts and 14,000 safety contacts with those who had entered the water.

Signs are plastered at the stairwells of Ocean Beach warning of the dangers of swimming there.

“At the beach we have signage at each of our stairwells and the signage is quite graphic. It describes the fact that people have drowned. It shows what rip currents look like. But really the message is, ‘Stay out of the water,’” Levitt said.

Levitt said the park agency is examining ways to make the signage more effective.

On Thursday, the agency finished painting larger and more visible numbering of the seawalls 1-26 so those who need to call in emergencies can identify exactly where they are.

Emergencies are responded to by the Fire Department and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Gonzales said his department will continue to hand out newly designed pamphlets warning beachgoers of the dangers. He also offered the possibility of a technological solution, when someone who nears the beach would receive a pop-up alert on their cell phones.

Max Ernst, chair of the San Francisco chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, encouraged prevention through an increasing “see something, say something” behavior of those who use the beach often.

“Surfers of Ocean Beach and community residents think that if we really focus on that we can prevent a lot of these incidents from happening,” he said.

Mar said he plans to hold a follow-up hearing on Ocean Beach safety within four months.

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