By DOTTY NIST
An idea from Walton County Tourist Development Council Director Jay Tusa to set up a multi-agency and department group to seek beach safety solutions got a favorable reaction from the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC), with more conversation to come on plans for the group.
Tusa brought the idea before the BCC during the course of the April 13 BCC regular meeting at the Walton County Courthouse.
Beach safety had been a topic of much recent discussion in Walton County with the tragic drowning of four people since the start of the 2021 beach season.
Speaking to the BCC, Tusa reported that there had been a lot of discussion on beach safety at the April 6 Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) meeting. He noted that there had been many challenges on the beach this season with rescues and the drownings.
Tusa continued that recently he had reached out to the agencies, departments and committees involved with beach safety, including the South Walton Fire District (SWFD), the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO), Walton County Code Compliance, and the TDC Beach Management Committee about working on a committee to seek beach safety solutions. He suggested engaging in a conversation on forming this committee at the next BCC meeting if the commissioners agreed on the idea.
District 2 Commissioner Danny Glidewell indicated that he thought the talks among the entities would be helpful, saying that he was in favor of anything that could be done to improve safety on the beach. There were nods on this from other commissioners.
Tusa also said that he had been speaking with Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson over the past few years about Tourist Development Tax (TDT) funds that are available by state law for public safety services (up to 10 percent of TDT revenues). He discussed ongoing cooperative efforts to bring moneys available from this 10 percent forward to fund public safety services provided by the WCSO. Tusa noted that $1.5 million per year is being provided from this source for the lifeguard program funded by the TDC. The lifeguard services are provided under a contract with the SWFD.
In response to a question about the lifeguard services, Tusa said lifeguards staff all the regional beach accesses and that lifeguard coverage is provided at these areas year-round.
Discussion of the lifeguard program continued with SWFD Chief Administrator Ryan Crawford and David Vaughan, director for the lifeguard/beach safety program, providing information.
Crawford commented on the difficulty of hiring lifeguards to staff the year-round lifeguard program. He said that in the past many students have served as lifeguards and that it is difficult to keep lifeguards in this age group on the program when school is in session.
He said that the SWFD board had recently addressed the issue by expanding the number of full-time employees in connection with the SWFD’s contract for the lifeguard services without increasing the contract price.
Crawford spoke to the need for the community to join together to find beach safety solutions. He praised the lifeguards’ “heroic work” protecting beachgoers’ safety from the TDC’s 11 towers along over 26 miles of beachfront.
Glidewell asked if the SWFD would be able to station lifeguards at the 1,000-foot-long public beach access area in Seagrove that is served by the managed beach vendor program. Vaughan said he was confident that this could be done, saying that it was “just a matter of will and creativity.”
Glidewell encouraged the SWFD to work to do so. He also urged Crawford and Vaughan to let the BCC know about needs for the program so that beachgoers’ safety could be better protected. “If you need something, we need to know it,” he said.
Crawford noted that all four drownings had taken place on privately-owned beach property at least half a mile from the lifeguard tower locations. He commented on the challenge of responding to emergencies from that distance and on how the odds of a successful rescue are reduced under such a circumstance.
“The elephant in the room is the private property/customary use,” Crawford told the commissioners, “how we work through that as a community…is it public-private partnerships?”
“There has to be a way to overcome that,” he continued, “with as many people as are coming here for the sole reason of enjoying our beaches, and for us to provide that level of protection that’s expected.”
Asked about the need for more lifeguard tower locations, Vaughan told the commissioners that the towers are an average of 2 1/2 miles apart but that spacing is much more in some instances, as much as 6 1/2 miles. Tower placement, he said, is based on “what we have control over.”
In addition to the areas the SWFD is contracted to protect under the lifeguard contract, Vaughan explained, as emergency medical services provider south of the bay the SWFD “is duty bound to respond to all 26 miles.” He added that the public expects the SWFD to respond to emergencies along all 26 miles.
He noted that there had been only one drowning incident on a guarded beach during the SWFD’s entire 16 years with the lifeguard program.
Vaughan highlighted one difficulty with the 2021 beach season, the fact that there had been red flag or double red flag conditions on the beach almost half the time since the opening of the beach season. Other challenges, he said, have been beachgoers’ lack of understanding of the beach flag warning system, defiance of beach flag warnings, and beachgoers’ natural inclination to go into the water to rescue others even when unprepared to be able to help.
All four of this season’s drownings, he observed, had been instances of people wanting to help others in trouble and going into the water unprepared.
“There’s not one solution,” Vaughan told the commissioners, “but I’m always going to be in favor on more messaging, more boots on the ground, and more education.”
Repeating his support for the working group that Tusa had proposed, District 3 Commissioner Mike Barker assured Crawford and Vaughan that upon their identifying needs for the program and bringing them back, the BCC would listen, be receptive, and move forward with increasing safety activities however possible. “We can always do things better,” he said.
“Thank your crews, they’re heroes in my book,” said District 1 Commissioner Boots McCormick. He urged Crawford and Vaughan to let the commissioners know what was needed to help them educate people and save lives.
Glidewell agreed that it was the BCC’s desire to do all they could to help.
“We’re here for you, chief,” County Commission Chairman Trey Nick concluded.
Tusa pledged to put an item on the agenda for the next BCC meeting regarding the multi-agency and -department beach safety group that he had suggested, in order to provide for more discussion and direction. Information on the TDT public safety services funding that he had referenced is to be brought before the TDC as a meeting action item and then to be brought before the BCC at a later date.