Steve Barrett, Steve Chorak, Jerry Hawk, Allan Seymour, Mike Wright)
Imagine an air-traffic control tower at a busy airport, and you’ll immediately understand what happens at Marine Safety’s Tower Zero on San Clemente Pier. From its unique vantage point, experienced lifeguards provide essential logistics and communications coordination across all five miles of San Clemente Beach. On a typical day, a beach-goer might hear a safety alert from Tower Zero’s public address system. A fishing boat too close to the Pier might be warned to move out. Or a lifeguard roving the beach on a jeep might receive a radio dispatch and be re-directed to deal with an emergency. With two million annual visitors, guarding San Clemente Beaches is a challenging occupation, and Tower Zero is mission-critical. It’s so important that it’s the only San Clemente lifeguard tower open 365 days a year and operated from 8:00am to dusk.
Marine Safety Chief Bill Humphreys is an undisputed hero of Tower Zero. With over 40 years of lifeguard experience in San Clemente Bill is quick to say that “Tower Zero is responsible for thousands of lives saved. From Tower Zero, we can see trouble first and act.”
To the average person, the benefits of the tower are clear: complete visibility through windows on all sides, a birds-eye view of the big picture, and evidence of all kinds of emergency equipment. Humphreys explains that the key advantage is the tower’s position on the Pier. It allows lifeguards to look inward, towards the surf-line, and eliminates the glare from sun that challenges other temporary lifeguard towers facing outward from the sand.
In this way alone, Tower Zero is essential to effectively coordinate rescue efforts. And coordination of safety resources is critical. A typical summer sees 55 lifeguards on San Clemente beaches, with up to 25 working on a single day. With multiple responders in an emergency, coordination is critical to a successful outcome.
The San Clemente Pier was constructed in 1928. However, Tower Zero wasn’t added to the pier until 1967. Across California, people were heading to the beaches in droves in the 1960s and safety was in the spotlight. Nearby piers such as Huntington Beach and Oceanside were adding permanent towers. The Marine Safety Chief at the time, Dick Hazard, saw advantages to having one in San Clemente and worked to convince the city.
Former lifeguard Jerry Hawk recollects that it was a relative easy-sell since the guards themselves would build the tower. Chief Hazard, along with lifeguard Steve Chorak, and the city’s carpenter Berl Hancock completed the platform and Tower, including staircase and roof.
The history behind the two required additional outside pilings is less clear. The pilings are an extremely solid foundation, but their placement results in a swaying effect in the tower when the surf is up, reminding tower guards of proximity to the ocean below.
Chief Humphreys says it’s impossible to over-estimate the value of Tower Zero. A hint at its importance is apparent in the 39 tasks that must be completed each day to open for business. On any given morning, the Tower Zero lifeguard works a disciplined list to ensure the tower is fully functioning. Protocol ensures that communication equipment operates (radios, phones, public address system), emergency equipment is at-the-ready (fire extinguisher, oxygen tanks, paddleboards, backboards, leash knife, whistles, helmets, boat tow lines, first aid kit), and record-keeping is up to date (ocean water temperature, water sample supplies and records, code books, weather service binder, tide books).
Technology links Tower Zero to other critical players in public safety, such as Orange County Fire Authority, Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Orange County Marine Safety at Dana Point Harbor, CA State Rangers, and the Coast Guard.
Humphreys also appreciates the efficiency of Tower Zero. In addition to the permanent tower, the city maintains 13 other seasonal sand-towers. The need for and expense of more sand-towers would be significant without Tower Zero on the Pier. For readers who are trivia buffs, sand-towers south of Tower Zero are odd-numbered, and those to the north are even numbered, another protocol shared in the marine safety world to make the location of an emergency easier to pinpoint.
Everyone has a favorite pier story and Chief Humphreys is no different. He remembers vividly the 1983 storm that tore 400 feet from the end of the Pier and 80 feet from its mid-section. Tower Zero remained standing but without access and of questionable stability. The solution was to create a temporary Tower Zero. A little shack using parts of one of the seasonal sand -towers was created and placed between the two concessions of Fisherman’s Restaurant and Bar.
The temporary tower, surrounded by diners and visitors, became known as the “fishbowl.” but provided necessary eyes on the water during the $820,000 FEMA-funded reconstruction of the pier. Not surprisingly, Humphrey’s resilience, optimism and resourcefulness brought to bear during this emergency are consistent characteristics of his leadership style.
What can you do to help ensure Tower Zero traffic control operates smoothly? Always swim with a buddy and obey posted warnings. Invest in swimming lessons for yourself and loved ones. Be alert to surfers, marine life and changing water conditions. Respond to and cooperate with San Clemente lifeguards. And thank a Tower Zero Hero for their service if you get the opportunity.