Rip currents — powerful, temporary tides that flow away from the shore — kill swimmers every year. But typically they don't generate the attention they deserve.

Until now.

With five rip-current-related drownings along the Jersey Shore so far this summer — including Paterson teen Rudy Mena off Long Branch in May — officials have vastly intensified efforts to prevent further deaths and inform the public about the danger.

Those efforts have come in the form of extended lifeguard hours, a smart-phone application used by New Jersey lifeguards to record rip currents and even the suggestion of a law that would subject those who swim at unguarded beaches to fines.

"The sad fact is that five confirmed rip-current related drownings, and possibly others, have already occurred this year," said Kim Kosko, communications director for the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium, an affiliation of colleges dedicated to advancing knowledge about the state's marine and coastal environment. That compares to only two along the coast last year, according to the National Weather Service.

"The common thread of all the rip-current drownings was that they occurred after-hours on unprotected beaches and it's a monumental task to prevent something like that," Kosko said. "So education is one of the keys to preventing it."

Nationwide, more than 100 people typically die each year due to rip currents, according to the United States Lifesaving Association. And 80 percent of rescues by beach lifeguards are due to rip currents, the association said.

Factors that have contributed to the uptick in drownings in New Jersey are warmer ocean and air temperatures that prompted more people to go in the ocean earlier in the year, said Jon K. Miller, a coastal engineering professor at Stevens Institute of Technology and a Sea Grant coastal processes specialist.

"That actually explains really well why we had so many (drownings) early in the season," he said.

Persistent northeast winds in May also eroded beaches, leading to the formation of more rip currents, said Joseph Bongiovanni, Asbury Park's beach safety supervisor.

Rip currents represent a danger that people don't seem to appreciate, Miller said.

"It's kind of silly but it's one of those things where they're not an identifiable villain in the story, so to speak," he said. "Everyone knows 'Jaws' and the shark has a persona whereas rip currents are under the radar."

Most people who live at the Shore or regularly visit beaches are fairly well-educated about the currents. "It's the people who come down for the day from North Jersey or New York who might not be aware," Miller said.

Lifeguards and coastal groups are hoping to change that.

Discussions are under way among the consortium, lifeguard associations and the National Weather Service to incorporate instruction on escaping a rip current into basic swimming lessons, Kosko said.

Bongiovanni, of Asbury Park, said education about rip currents should also be added to the water-safety curriculum in school health classes.

To get the word out this season about the currents, the consortium collaborated with Shore-area Girl Scouts to place devices called QR tags on all rip-current awareness signs at beach entrances. Smart-phone users can then scan their phones and be connected to information about rip currents on the consortium's website.

Stevens Institute of Technology has also partnered with the National Weather Service in creating a smart-phone application used by lifeguards who log the number, location and strength of rip currents. Thirteen beach towns are participating in a pilot project launched this summer that provides real-time warnings for lifeguards who are then armed with more information to gauge the ocean conditions of their own beaches.

The National Weather Service, which has been forecasting rip current risks for the past five years, will use the collected data to study the patterns of the currents, Miller said.

Several Shore towns have also taken the step of extending lifeguard hours beyond past 5 p.m., when they normally pack up for the day.

Officials in Asbury Park, following the June 20 drowning of a 23-year-old Irvington man who was trying to rescue his sister from a rip current, decided to keep lifeguards on duty until 6 p.m. weekdays and 7 p.m. on weekends, said Bongiovanni. The city also uses firefighters trained in ocean rescues who will respond after-hours and in the offseason, he said.

Asbury Park prohibits swimming in certain areas near jetties because rip currents tend to form there. Cautionary signs are posted near the jetties warning swimmers about the dangerous currents.

Bongiovanni, a lifeguard for 44 years, says a law is needed that would fine bathers who swim on unguarded beaches between May and October.

"I don't want to deny people of the privilege of going in the water, but it would keep people out of water and they're not going to drown," he said, adding that he realizes it would be tough to enforce.

Sharon Thompson, who was recently sitting on an Asbury Park beach, said she grew up along the Shore and knows how to avoid rip currents. But she still wouldn't risk swimming on unprotected beaches.

"The ocean is the most powerful force on the Earth," said Thompson of West Long Branch. "Why would you risk it if you don't know anything about it?"

Her friend, Kristin Aras of Ocean Township, said beachgoers need to do research before visiting, similar to what they'd do before going on a vacation.

"Read up on what the weather is going to be like, whether the beach will be closed and if there is a rip current," she said. "You do have to take safety precautions. And if you can't swim, do not go in the ocean."