Report 2004-124 Summary - August 2005

Department of Parks and Recreation: Lifeguard Staffing Appears Adequate to Protect the Public, but Districts Report Equipment and Facility Needs


Our review of the sufficiency of the Department of Parks and Recreation's (Parks) staffing levels and other resources at state beaches necessary to protect the public found that:


The Department of Parks and Recreation (Parks) manages more than 300 miles of coastline and 625 miles of rivers and lake shoreline. Parks provides aquatic safety in these areas through various strategies, including tower-based lifeguard operations, roving vehicle and boat patrols, signs, visitor pamphlets, and news releases. During the five-year period ending in 2004, Parks reported only seven drowning incidents in its waterways where there was a staffed lifeguard tower or station (guarded waters), suggesting that lifeguard staffing has been adequate to protect the public at Parks' guarded waters.

The number of reported drownings in its guarded waters has remained low even though Parks reported a significant increase in estimated beach attendance and lifeguard workload during the same five-year period. However, we noted some instances in which Parks' aquatic safety statistics were incomplete or inaccurate, raising questions about the reliability of the data Parks reports. From 2000 to 2004, the three local governments we surveyed—the cities of Huntington Beach and San Diego and Los Angeles County—also reported no relative increase in the number of drowning incidents in their guarded waters. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these statistics mirror the national trend of few drownings in guarded waters despite rising attendance and workload.

Based on pay records, we estimate that Parks' lifeguards worked slightly fewer hours in 2004 than in 2000. However, its lifeguard staffing patterns and the mix of permanent and seasonal lifeguards seem reasonable, with Parks relying on permanent lifeguards in nonpeak attendance months and on seasonal lifeguards during the peak attendance season. Further, Parks appears to benefit by requiring its permanent lifeguards to be peace officers, because the largest percentage increase in the lifeguards' workload has been related to law enforcement. Our surveys also revealed that Parks generally follows relevant, professional standards when assessing its lifeguard staffing needs.

Parks reported an increasing number of drownings in unguarded waters over the last five years. Unguarded waters are areas where Parks either has not assigned lifeguards or has assigned lifeguards but the waters are outside the lifeguards' immediate view. Overall, given the low number of drownings in guarded waters reported in 2004, one might argue that adding more lifeguards could reduce or eliminate drownings in unguarded waters. However, although every drowning is a tragedy, based on the circumstances surrounding the 31 unguarded-water drownings that Parks reported in 2004—21 in its lifeguard districts and 10 in districts without aquatic safety programs—we believe that adding more lifeguards may not be appropriate. The level of lifeguard staffing did not appear to be an issue in 17 of the 31 drowning incidents, primarily because of the times of day or the seasons in which they occurred. For the remaining incidents, it is not clear that Parks would choose to add more lifeguards at these locations if it received additional resources.

According to Parks' aquatic safety specialist, given additional lifeguard staffing and resources, Parks would be able to address the increasing rate of unguarded-water drownings. However, it is unrealistic to think that Parks could prevent all drownings in state parks, no matter how many lifeguards were assigned to protect the public along state waterways. Finally, we acknowledge that Parks must make difficult management decisions about the best allocation of its resources to maximize public safety given the State's current fiscal situation.

Further, lifeguard districts significantly decreased their spending for equipment and facility operations costs from fiscal years 1999-2000 to 2003-04. As a result, according to the sectors within the lifeguard districts that operate aquatic safety programs (lifeguard sectors), some of their lifeguard equipment and facilities are in poor condition and in need of repair or replacement. Staff at Parks indicated that it generally cuts back on equipment and maintenance expenses when faced with budget cuts for operating expenses because they are nonfixed or discretionary expenses. This is consistent with responses to our survey, in which many lifeguard sectors expressed a need for additional resources to maintain and add to their lifeguard equipment and facilities. These sectors indicated needing primarily vehicles, rescue boats, and portable towers. In addition, although Parks plans to replace two of its permanent lifeguard facilities and expand another, lifeguard sectors reported that several other facilities are in need of repair or replacement. However, management at Parks believes that it has allocated sufficient funds to provide adequate aquatic safety while balancing the needs of all its programs. In contrast, the three local governments we surveyed reported having sufficient and operable equipment.

Although no instances came to our attention in which the poor condition of equipment affected the lifeguard sectors' ability to provide aquatic safety, we observed a few examples of equipment in poor condition. However, we were unable to assess whether the additional equipment needs reported by the lifeguard sectors were necessary, because we are not aware of any standard that specifies the amount of equipment lifeguards must have to perform their duties. Finally, although most lifeguard districts said they need additional funds to maintain their equipment, we are uncertain they would spend the additional funds to fulfill those needs. According to Parks' budget office, the lifeguard districts have some control over their spending for nonfixed or discretionary costs, such as equipment and facilities maintenance, overtime, and temporary staffing.


To help it determine the amount and best allocation of resources sufficient to protect the public at beaches and waterways within state parks, Parks should do the following:

To avoid a potentially negative impact on its ability to protect the public, Parks needs to monitor how long it can continue to curtail spending on lifeguard districts' equipment and facilities.

If Parks decides to allocate additional funding to its aquatic safety programs in the future, either for equipment expenses or for additional lifeguards, it should work closely with its lifeguard districts to clarify the intended purposes of any proposed changes in spending. For example, if Parks decides to allocate additional funding to augment its lifeguard staff, it should carefully consider whether to expand coverage into unguarded waters in districts with existing aquatic safety programs or to implement new aquatic safety programs in districts at coastal or inland waterways without lifeguard coverage.


Parks is pleased with the findings of our audit and it generally concurs with our recommendations.