On March 29, 2016, at approximately 12:30 p.m., 62 high school swimmers between the ages of 14–17 years old and two adult coaches from a high school swim team from Riverside County, Calif., went to the beach at La Jolla Cove, a popular, internationally-recognized diving and snorkeling area in San Diego, to prepare for a group swim. The lifeguards approached the team leaders to talk about their plan and provide a safety briefing about the area and the conditions.
The water temperature was 59 degrees F, the surf was 2–4 feet and the wind was 10–15 knots from the west. Lifeguards advised against the group’s ocean swim.
The coaches listened to the briefing and told the lifeguards that all the students were accomplished swimmers and reported that most of them had completed a similar group swim in the past year. Their plan was to swim from La Jolla Cove to La Jolla Shores beach, a distance just under a mile. (See Figure 1, below.)
Figure 1: Location of swimmers rescued off the coast of La Jolla, Calif.
Image courtesy John Sandmeyer
Swimmers in Distress
Within 10 minutes of the group entering the water, several of the swimmers raised their hands to signal they needed assistance.
Lifeguards immediately responded on rescue boards and strategically-positioned personal watercraft (PWC) with attached rescue sleds from the cove and La Jolla Shores, as well as by a surfboat from nearby Mission Bay.
By the time the San Diego Fire-Rescue (SDFR) lifeguards reached the group, which was 100 yards from the shore, there were additional groups of swimmers struggling to stay afloat.
Twelve swimmers were immediately rescued and brought back to La Jolla Cove, including a 16-year-old female who became unconscious while with the lifeguards. The lifeguards ensured a patent airway on the young swimmer as they moved her to the shoreline and paramedics were immediately alerted to meet the in-water personnel at the Cove. When they arrived, paramedics treated and transported the female patient to Scripps La Jolla hospital.
San Diego Fire-Rescue lifeguards used personal watercraft with an attached rescue sled to aid in removing patients from the water. Photo courtesy Bruce Jamieson
Rescuing the Remainder
All lifeguards in the water began to direct and bring the remaining 52 swimmers to the south end of the beach. Eleven of those swimmers were directly rescued by lifeguards using rescue boards, PWCs or rescue boats. The remaining swimmers were escorted to the shore by lifeguards in several groups.
At this point in the rescue, the incident commander took steps to organize the incident through an expanding incident command system. Because the incident area spread more than a mile, it was important to designate separate branches at the different locations.
The “Cove Branch” had 12 victims with one unconscious swimmer. The “Shores Branch” was receiving 52 swimmers over time and was initiating a medical triage and victim staging area.
Coordination of the PWC staff and the multiple lifeguards on rescue boards who were still assisting swimmers was done by “Water Ops,” a two-person crew on the rescue boat.
Lifeguards triaged and evaluated each swimmer for injuries and hypothermia as they arrived on the beach. Six victims were transported via lifeguard truck to two awaiting paramedic ambulance crews and an SDFR paramedic engine company that formed a medical staging area in Kellogg Park near the La Jolla Shores lifeguard station.
All of the remaining patients were assessed and cleared by SDFR paramedics and released to the group guardians.
Accounting for All Swimmers
Accounting for all swimmers became the highest priority task and was completed at the designated staging area at La Jolla Shores. The coaches produced a roster to check attendance when all swimmers were brought together. This required the 11 swimmers brought to the cove to be escorted by land over to the beach.
Once all of the swimmers were accounted for, assessed and medically cleared, they were brought together and debriefed by lifeguards and their swim team coaches.
Full documentation of the 23 water rescues was completed and contact was made with the Val Verde School District Superintendent. The lead coach was then directed to Scripps La Jolla hospital to meet with the transported patient.
Buses were also dispatched to take the swim group back to Riverside County. News media representatives were then brought together for a joint briefing by lifeguard and SDFR officials on scene.
This rapid and coordinated response by SDFR lifeguards and EMS/fire units averted a major tragedy. This incident illustrates why emergency response agencies that serve major waterways, coves and water recreation areas need to drill and be as well-versed in rescue and MCI operations as ground-based agencies. They must also be equipped with a variety of watercraft and water rescue devices staged near high-hazard areas to ensure rapid response, extraction and care.
This event also demonstrates the need to have all rescue personnel trained in the principles of the incident command system and able to quickly conform to expanded organization of the assets as needed.
San Diego Fire-Rescue Lifeguards Advice for Group Swims
- Check in with the lifeguard before you go, ask about conditions and listen to their advice.
- When you swim in open water, stay in groups and monitor the progress of each other.
- If there’s a problem, hold your arm up to get attention and assistance.
- Stay together if someone needs help; try to reassure the victim and minimize panic.
- If a group is in need of assistance, start to swim to the closest point of land and raise your arm for help periodically.