Walton County stepping up beach safety messaging with 'sweeps,' video campaign and more

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News
A Beach Ambassador speaks recently with a lifeguard in Miramar Beach. Walton County officials, in conjunction with local accommodation providers and other tourist-related businesses, are working to increase beach safety awareness.

MIRAMAR BEACH — When four people drowned in three separate incidents in the early days of this tourist season, the Walton County government and local hospitality industry began moving to increase beach safety messaging across a number of fronts.

With particular focus on the county's beach flag system — specifically on the double-red flags that signal the Gulf of Mexico is closed due to dangerous surf conditions — the county began a number of efforts to get that message out. Initiatives included installing regular and electronic billboards along roads explaining the flag system and, among local accommodation providers and tourist-related businesses, distributing printed material to visitors explaining the flags.

Other efforts have included publicizing the availability of text message updates on surf conditions, which are available by texting the word "SAFETY" to 31279, and having the county's Beach Ambassadors continue to communicate directly with beachgoers regarding beach warning flags.

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A number of Walton County government vehicles and private Waste Management garbage trucks are displaying magnetic placards explaining the beach flag warning system as part of a county campaign to increase awareness of beach safety issues.

Those messages seem to be getting through, although not yet to the extent that David Vaughan, beach safety director for the South Walton Fire District (SWFD), would like to see. Among its duties, the SWFD provides lifeguard services on the county's public beaches and responds to emergencies on private beaches.

As local concerns about beach safety grew early this tourist season, Vaughan and other public safety personnel, from the SWFD to the county's code compliance office to the Walton County Sheriff's Office, reported a disturbing level of outright defiance of directives to beachgoers to get out of the water when double-red flags were flying.

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'Sharks and minnows' ... and sweeps 

During the last stretch of multiple days of double-red flags along Walton County beaches, from June 17-22, "people weren't as abusive" when directed to get out of the water, said Vaughan.

But he added that even that less-grudging level of compliance has tended to evaporate as one day of double-red flag conditions stretches into three or four days of vacationers' visits.

Local officials working the beaches even have a name for the phenomenon — "sharks and minnows" — Vaughan said, explaining that as officials approach people in the water under double-red flag conditions, those people will get out of the water, but once the officials are gone, the people get back in, much as minnows will separate when a shark swims among them, but will come back together after the shark passes.

With red flags flying at the Miramar Regional Beach Access in Walton County on the afternoon of the Fourth of July, people venturing into the water were staying relatively close to shore. Visitors and residents interviewed at the beach during the holiday weekend generally were positive about the county's efforts on beach safety messaging, but some had suggestions on how to improve the communication.

As such, Vaughan said in a Monday interview, beach enforcement officials are planning "sweeps" of the beaches during double-red flag conditions in coming days. During those operations, lifeguards will direct people to get out of the water, and as they come out they immediately will be met by either a sheriff's deputy or a code compliance officer to face the possibility of being issued a citation.

Prior to February, the fine for entering the water under double-red flag conditions was $100, but changes to the county's beach activities ordinance hiked that fine to $500 and added the possibility of as long as 60 days in jail, in addition to a $500 fine, for a second offense.

In the meantime, Vaughan said, he and other county personnel have been impressed by the "sustained support from the local community" for the increased focus on beach safety.

Community support encouraging

The lifeguard station at the Miramar Regional Beach Access displays a sign telling beachgoers how they can get information on surf conditions by phone and includes an explanation of the beach flag warning system.

"It's still a little too early to tell if our efforts are paying dividends," Vaughan said, but he added that he has been heartened by the support, which he had cynically expected to drop as the season progressed and the four early drownings faded into memory.

Since then, the county recorded two successful water rescues in June, but saw the death of a 55-year-old Texas man in an incident in Miramar Beach last Friday, although it's not yet certain whether the man drowned or experienced some other medical emergency while in the water, Vaughan said. 

But "since it (beach safety) has become a public focus, the community support has been sustained," he added. 

In the coming days, Vaughan said the SWFD plans to present some additional plans for improving beach safety to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners, while the remainder of this tourist season is likely to remain with the current but improved status quo.

In the relatively near future, Vaughan said the SWFD plans to start delivering its own messaging with regard to beach safety through the work of its new public information officer. That messaging, to be distributed via video on digital channels, will be a mix of straight informational presentations on beach safety along with some more hard-hitting messages that won't flinch at the mention of fatal consequences of entering dangerous surf.

While some messaging will be "feel-good stuff that we can put out to the kids," Vaughan said the messaging also is "going to get into that whole, 'Hey, did you know that this person died because of this (beach safety issue)?' "

'Have somebody saying something' 

This is one of a number of ways Walton County authorities work to communicate with beachgoers about the flag warning system that warns of hazards in the Gulf of Mexico. The county is expanding its messaging about beach safety.

In the meantime, the status of the county's beach safety messaging efforts got generally high marks from both visitors and residents who spent some of their Fourth of July holiday weekend on the beach at the Miramar Regional Beach Access off Scenic Gulf Drive.

Gabriel and Jessica Vela, visiting from Houston with their young son, Stephen, said they had learned about the flag system on previous beach trips.

Stephen Vela, though, suggested that the county could improve its efforts by having some county staff members driving along the beach in an ATV with a public-address system offering repeated brief explanations of the flag system.

"One of the things, is ... if they had somebody saying something," Stephen said.

Also visiting were Darrell Owens and his wife, Allison, who came down from the mountains of northern Georgia to spend their holiday at the beach. They knew about the beach flags, they said, but only because of a trip they had made to Walton County's beaches a few months ago.

At that time, Allison Owens said, "We were not highly familiar with it (the flag system) ... but we learned."

They said they learned from efforts of the county's Beach Ambassadors, who are stationed at public beach accesses to assist visitors, the couple said. During their earlier visit, they said they saw and heard Beach Ambassadors moving among beachgoers to talk about the flag system.

The Owenses have routinely vacationed on the Atlantic coast of Florida, and said Walton's Beach Ambassadors were the first such group that they'd seen on any of their trips.

If there is one thing in the Owenses' eyes that might help improve communication about beach flags even further, it might be to put placards in condominiums and hotel rooms explaining the flags.

"That's a good idea!" Allison Owens said after learning that a proposal to do just that has been floated among county officials. 

Bigger signs might help 

Also visiting Friday were Gene and Lisa Walker from North Carolina and their son, Jake, from Tennessee.

Jake Walker said the family had noticed the beach flags ever since their arrival, and got curious about the meaning after seeing the flag go from yellow earlier in the week, denoting moderate surf conditions, to red on Friday.

"We've noticed all this week," Jake Walker said, and when the flag changed color they noticed the signs along the Miramar Regional Beach Access explaining their meanings.  

This brief advice on how to escape from a rip current is among the safety messages on the ramp leading to the beach at the Miramar Regional Beach Access off Scenic Gulf Drive in Walton County. The county has been working to amplify its messaging on beach safety, particularly with regard to dangerous surf conditions.

While one of the dune walkovers features a large sign on the beach side displaying the meaning of the flags, other walkovers either are not marked or have only small signs regarding the flag systems.

The Walkers suggested posting additional signage on the dune walkovers, particularly on the parking lot side, and more generally, to make the signs "just a little bit bigger," Gene Walker said.  

Like visitors, residents have noticed the county's stepped-up messaging. Enjoying the beach on Sunday afternoon, Tim Longwiner and Bo Smith noted the county's use of the Splashboard Media boat that moves a giant video board along the beaches to spread the message about the beach flag system.

Media coverage about the efforts also has helped get the word out, they said.

Resident, Kathy Wallace praised the county's efforts to boost beach safety awareness, and suggested that visitors might simply need to pay more attention.

"I don't know why they ignore it," Wallace said. "I don't know if it's a communications barrier. The county is doing their best."