Since his departure as head of Bay Medical Center EMS Surf Rescue Team in 2008, Mike Hudson said, 75 more tourists and locals have drowned in the Gulf of Mexico.
PANAMA CITY BEACH — The lifeguard plan in 2008 was straightforward.
For an initial outlay of $664,959 and successive annual investments of $500,000, the city could implement a robust beach lifeguard program at 10 locations along its beachfront.
City officials reacted decisively.
They suppressed the report and forced its author out of his job.
In mid-2008, during a spike in drownings along the Gulf beachfront, Mike Hudson, then head of the Bay Medical Center EMS Surf Rescue Team, drafted a plan calling for a force of 16 on-duty lifeguards to protect 10 designated swimming areas along the city’s 9.2-mile beachfront during the six-month tourist season. He submitted the plan to the city on June 26, 2008, and the roof promptly fell in on him.
“That thing was torpedoed from multiple directions because it was not a priority or even on the radar to those who were sworn to protect the public,” Hudson said in an interview this week, anger still in his voice 11 years later.
Hudson, a senior paramedic for the then-public Bay Medical Center, had created the surf rescue operation to serve the 22-mile beachfront, but realized that much more than that was necessary than his small organization could provide. As a certified lifeguard training instructor and a career EMS professional with two decades of service at that time, the 36-year-old Hudson, with the help of a friend in the Walton County beach safety program, began drafting “on my own initiative” a plan for a comprehensive lifeguard system, focusing on the 9.2-mile beach segment within the city limits of Panama City Beach. Three months of effort by the two men resulted in a 40-page document that demonstrated a viable lifeguard program that he insists was — and still is today — both physically possible and economically feasible.
Within weeks of submitting his proposal, several of his supervisors told him that he “was no longer welcome in PCB and that there was no need for a surf rescue team,” Hudson said.
Soon after that, Bay Medical Center ceased funding the rescue swimmer training program. He resigned and shortly thereafter, accepted a job in Colorado with a mountain rescue supervisor. In 2012, Hudson returned to the East Coast in several water safety positions and currently serves as a chief lifeguard and water rescue team leader in New Jersey.
The introduction to “Panama City Beach Lifeguard Services — Request or Proposal” began with a blunt assertion: “Currently the beaches in Bay County have had more drowning-related injuries and deaths than most of the other beaches in the state of Florida. … Any government entity that is charged with public safety and civic protection has an ethical responsibility to provide the best possible lifesaving service it can.”
Recognizing that it would be physically impossible to guard all 9.2 miles of the beach, Hudson proposed establishing “specific public sections of beach and inshore water” to be guarded, with roving patrols for the rest of the shoreline. The lifeguard program would include:
— Ten lifeguard stands at selected locations from Beach Access 24 at Joan Avenue to Beach Access 76 at Deluna Place, with a “main tower” at the M.B. Miller Pier near Alf Coleman Road. The guarded beach areas would be clearly marked with boundary signs;
— Fifteen on-duty lifeguards would man the 10 stations from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., and another five “rovers” would be on patrol each day during the tourist season, running from March through Labor Day;
— Each lifeguard station would monitor a 300-yard swath of the beach with the lifeguard tower at midpoint; the roving patrols would operate in three sectors along the beach; all lifeguard stands would have redundant communications via cellphones and VHF radio to other stands, the roving patrols and city Fire Dispatch;
— All lifeguards would hold United States Lifesaving Association certificates for “open water” rescue;
— The lifeguards would operate one supervisory patrol vehicle (a 4x4 truck or car) with trailer to carry a rescue watercraft (wave runner with rescue sled); three roving patrol vehicles would be 4-wheel ATVs.
Hudson calculated that the total start-up cost for the city lifeguard program would be $664,959 ($793,917 in 2019 dollars), and by conservative extrapolation, extending the system to the entire 22-mile beachfront would be about double the cost, or $1.3 million ($1.5 million today); subsequent annual operating costs would be slightly lower, at $500,000 ($596,000 today).
Hudson recalled that he was initially heartened to find that many of his colleagues in the EMS organization supported the plan as he and his colleague had designed it, but other officials did not. He said he later learned the council had quietly “tabled” the proposal, and to the best of his knowledge, buried it in a filing cabinet.
A review of the minutes of council meetings in July and August of 2008 show no indication that the local government ever brought up the Hudson plan for consideration. At their meetings on July 24 and Aug. 28 that year, the council did consider and pass an ordinance that required a beach vendor wishing to employ an “exclusive lifeguard” at its location — one not involved in sales or rentals — to have open-water rescue certification. However, the measure stipulated that this was optional, and vendors could choose to post a “no lifeguard present” sign as an alternative. Then-Mayor Gayle Oberst told the council during the Aug. 28 meeting that “to her knowledge, no designated (vendor) lifeguards were on the beach,” the minutes state.
Since his departure from Bay County in 2008, Hudson said, 75 more tourists and locals have drowned in the Gulf of Mexico.