Calm before the storm?
Port Hueneme’s beaches are a popular destination for visitors and locals alike, not only for the scenery, but also for the safety that the lifeguards on duty bring during the warm summer months. Typically, the lifeguards hired by the city of Port Hueneme to patrol the beaches finish their duties by the end of September, when during most years the air turns chill and the crowds leave.
This year, however, has been different. With the warm weather sticking around, the crowds have stuck around, too, and on Sunday, Oct. 11, six beachgoers were rescued near the Port Hueneme pier after being caught up in strong rip currents and sneak waves requiring multiple county and city agencies to rescue them.
With no lifeguard on duty, the situation could have been much worse; all six were rescued safely by the combined efforts of the Coast Guard, the Oxnard Harbor Patrol, the Oxnard Police Department and the Ventura County and Oxnard Fire Departments.
“If we’d had lifeguards on hand, that probably wouldn’t have happened,” said Port Hueneme City Councilman Jim Hensley. “Lifeguards are essential.”
Hensley estimated the cost for the pier rescue to be somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 and says that having lifeguards would have been much less expensive.
Now the question is whether or not to place more lifeguards on duty — and if the city can, or is even willing, to pay for it.
A wave of trouble
Port Hueneme is becoming no stranger to excessive costs in dealing with its lifeguard situation. A recent lawsuit filed by two former Port Hueneme lifeguards alleges that the city retaliated against plaintiffs Kavika Taitai and Erik Bear after specifically telling them not to file for unemployment following the end of the lifeguard season, when they were let go.
“This has included expressly threatening plaintiff Bear that if he obtained unemployment compensation benefits following the 2014 lifeguard season, he would be terminated and denied employment with the city in the future,” the suit alleges, adding that though the plaintiffs had the legal right to obtain benefits, Bear did not for fear of not being hired the following season.
The lawsuit also alleges that City Manager Cynthia Haas and Deputy City Manager Carmen Nichols interfered with prospective employment opportunities for the duo. The plaintiffs are seeking compensation for damages and attorney’s fees.
A tsunami of Issues
The incident at the Hueneme Pier was far from the only one on Sunday.
The Ventura County Fire Department’s station 53 in Port Hueneme had three crew members patrol Silver Strand Beach over the weekend. During the patrol, eight other rescue attempts of swimmers caught in rip currents or otherwise in distress were made, including four who were in serious distress.
Capt. Mark Frailey was one of the responders to the Hueneme Pier and says that the department hires extra help at this time during the season so as not to stress the station’s resources.
“This time of the year we have to be a little bit more diligent in keeping more people available just due to the fact that the lifeguards are seasonal; they go off duty for the year,” said Frailey. “Anytime that you can have lifeguards at the point of the problem for immediate insertion for viable rescues you’re going to have a better outcome for the swimmers out there.”
For Port Hueneme City Councilman Jim Hensley, more lifeguards are the solution and the city needs to be prepared to act.
“When there are conditions like this, [the city needs] to be prepared for it,” said Hensley. “Don’t just quit after Labor Day. Even if there’s a warm day in December with high surf and hot beaches, we better have a lifeguard down there. We have to anticipate it because one person’s life is worth it.”