PCB improves beach safety

Nathan Cobb

PANAMA CITY BEACH — With peak season approaching, local officials hope a new take on beach safety will improve the experience for those visiting the Gulf Coast.

In October, the Panama City Beach Fire Department took on the task of protecting the beach. Before, the responsibility fell on the city’s park and recreation and police departments, said Larry Couch, chief of the Panama City Beach Fire Department.

“Four million people visited Bay County beaches last year, and we had 12 drownings,” Couch wrote in an email. “With the limited city and county beach safety staff, our entities do a tremendous job preventing and saving a lot of lives. You hear about the drownings but not so much about all those where are saved.”

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He added that the record number of water-related fatalities were paired with “hundreds” of rescues. He said the weather was primarily to blame.

“When we get storms and the winds pick up unexpectedly off the Gulf of Mexico, the water gets rough in a hurry,” Couch said.

Under the direction of the fire department, the city’s lifeguard program currently features five full-time rescuers, all United States Lifeguard Association certified.

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Couch expected to also hire at least eight more seasonal rescuers for peak season. It will then be up to beach-front businesses to rent lifeguards from the department to oversee their portion of the beach.

Couch’s hope was for the program to mirror the beach safety efforts of the South Walton Fire District, which oversee South Walton’s lifeguard program.

While there are currently several property owners interested in a private/public partnership, Couch wouldn’t release their names.

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Looking ahead, he planned for the program to continue to grow each year.

With what he described as “the most beautiful beaches in the world,” he hopes to create an environment where all beachgoers make it home safely.

“I know 12 drownings seems a lot of the public, and don’t get me wrong, zero drownings is the goal, but you have to consider the large amount of area beach safety and first responders have to cover, our limited staffing and the sheer magnitude of people that were at some point on our beaches last year,” he said. “It would be overwhelming for any service.”