Walton County floats idea of 'career' lifeguards to improve beach safety

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — As tourism in Walton County stretches beyond the traditional summer season to a more year-round proposition, the South Walton Fire District's beach safety director is looking at the possibility of changing lifeguard staffing strategies.

“I'm working more toward getting away from late high school and early college kids who are looking for a job for six to eight months out of the year to more career-minded individuals with whom we can really invest in training ... ," SWFD Beach Safety Director David Vaughan said during a Tuesday workshop with the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC).

The TDC funds the lifeguard program along the beaches with some of the proceeds of a 5% tax on accommodations charged to visitors. Tuesday's workshop brought the TDC together with county emergency personnel and the council's hospitality industry partners to talk about beach safety issues, with an eye toward getting ideas for making the beaches safer.

Previously:Lifeguards say beachgoers are defying double-red flag warnings

Lifeguards respond with mass rescue in Miramar Beach, 2 people still in hospital

Double-red flags flying at Walton County's Miramar Regional Beach Access to warn beachgoers to stay out of the water seemed to be working Tuesday afternoon as waves rolled rapidly onto the beach.

Beach safety issues have become something of a flashpoint during this tourist season, in which four drownings in the Gulf of Mexico already have been recorded. All of those deaths involved people entering the water when double-red flags were flying at the beaches, signifying that surf conditions were too dangerous to enter the water.

There has, however, been significant disregard for double-red flags among some beachgoers, local public safety personnel have reported.

A challenge locally, according to Vaughan, is that wave action along the Gulf of Mexico is vastly different from wave action along the country's east and west coasts. On those coasts, he said there are typically 10 to 12 seconds between waves. "Here, it's a washing machine," he explained. "You’ve got these things (waves) folding like flapjacks on top of each other ... (R)ips (rip currents, which drag swimmers out into the water) open up very easily here, and you can’t predict where they’re going to pop up.”

Occasionally, Vaughan added, a larger "sneaker" wave will crash onto the beach, "open up a bunch of rips, and people all up and down within, say, about a five-mile stretch will all start getting sucked out at about the same time. And we end up with five or six water rescues at the same time, which right now overwhelms our ability to respond.”

SWFD Chief Ryan Crawford used Tuesday's workshop in part to bolster Vaughn's point, telling the group that the situation is "rapidly evolving from a seasonal employment model to something that’s going to require investment in a more full-time employment model.”

“It’s not sustainable to do what we’re doing with the part-time seasonal lifeguard workforce," Crawford said, adding that filling lifeguard positions does present some challenges because of the "very unique skill set that requires some physical fitness.”

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There were a few suggestions from the hospitality partners, largely in terms of how best to get the message out to tourists and residents about the beach flag warning system, including timely notification via cellphone text messages when double-red flags are flying.

But the boldest suggestion came from Crawford and Vaughan, who suggested public-private partnerships, including financial and other support from private interests along the beaches, could be an effective tool to boost beach safety. That's particularly important in Walton County, where most of the county's 26 miles of beaches are in private hands.

The county responds to emergencies along all 26 miles of beaches, but there are places where private ownership, whether by individual homeowners or beachfront resorts, means that the county can't install lifeguard towers without the owner's permission. In one instance, private beach ownership has created a 6.5-mile gap between lifeguard towers. Lifeguards are available along two sections of private beach, at the Sandestin resort in Miramar Beach in the western end of the county and in the Rosemary Beach community on the county's eastern end.

The four recent drowning deaths, which came in three incidents, all occurred on privately held sections of beach at least a half-mile from lifeguard towers on public sections of the beach.

Beyond lifeguard towers, Crawford suggested public-private partnerships could be useful in providing emergency access to beaches, and in providing for storage of SWFD equipment along the beaches.

“It’s just a matter of investment," Vaughan said with regard to getting more lifeguard towers along the beaches. And, he added, "it’s having the political will across the board as a community, from both public and private (sectors) to say, 'OK, if we’ve got these gaps in coverage, then we’re willing to pick up the slack.'"

Building, staffing and equipping a lifeguard tower is a considerable investment, added Vaughan, who pegged initial costs at about $130,000, with subsequent yearly operational costs of almost $100,000.

As efforts to ramp up beach safety are being discussed, Crawford said the county should be forthright in its messaging on the current state of the issue.

“We should tell the people who are coming here to swim near a lifeguard, go to one of the regional beach accesses (where lifeguards are on duty from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m.)," he said.

The county also should let people know that neighborhood beach access points are not staffed with lifeguards, Crawford said.

“I think there’s kind of an unrealistic expectation that there’s going to be somebody there that’s going to be able to respond to your needs — and there’s not, and we should tell people that,” he said.

Overall, Crawford suggested, “I think sometimes we get a little nervous about negative messaging (about the county's beaches, a huge draw for visitors), but that’s the reality of the situation. We should own that ... and not be afraid to say that.”

Among other issues addressed Tuesday were the staffing hours for lifeguard towers, which the SWFD is mandated to staff from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. each day. Crawford conceded that staffing hours ought to be increased, particularly in light of the fact that many families bring young children to the beach in the earlier hours of the morning.

“We think that there’s room … even during the peak periods of the summer, to look at expanding" the staffing schedule, he said.

On a related note, Crawford also said the SWFD is looking at ways to make an earlier determination of surf conditions and posting the appropriate flags. That call currently is made at 10 a.m. each day as lifeguards come on duty.

On Thursday, the TDC will hold a public workshop on beach safety, designed to gather input from the public on ensuring the safety of visitors and residents. That meeting, set for 4 p.m. at the South Walton Courthouse Annex, at 31 Coastal Center Blvd. in Santa Rosa Beach, can be attended and participated in remotely via the Zoom teleconferencing tool online at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/87066040306.

Thursday's meeting can also be accessed by telephone at +1-929-205-6099, +1-301-715-8592, +1-312-626-6799, +1-669-900-6833, +1-253-215-8782  or +1-346-248-7799. The webinar ID for the meeting is 870 6604 0306.