By DOTTY NIST
Faced with beachgoers ignoring flag warnings and getting in trouble in the water, South Walton Fire District lifeguards pulled approximately 50 people out of the gulf during double red flag conditions at the end of August.
The rough surf conditions were associated with the presence of Hurricane Laura in the gulf.
Double red flags mean that the water is closed to the public due to dangerous conditions such as rip currents. Entering the water when it has been officially closed to the public represents a violation of the Walton County Beach Activities Ordinance.
David Vaughan, beach safety director for the South Walton Fire District (SWFD), said there were 31 responses by lifeguards to incidents of swimmers in trouble during the recent double red flag days, Aug. 26 through Aug. 31, with emergency medical services required in 23 of those rescues.
In response to a question, Vaughan said all the swimmers in trouble were from out of the area. “Not one local among them,” he said.
The SWFD reported no drownings for the time period, although two drownings had occurred in May and June 2020 in areas not guarded by SWFD lifeguards.
Vaughan said a SWFD lifeguard conducting a water rescue on Aug. 28 had to be hospitalized. He explained that this was due to the lifeguard being underwater for a long time during a challenging rescue and becoming exhausted. The lifeguard has since recovered and is reported to be back at work.
Vaughan said there were at least four back-to-back water rescues on Aug. 29, two of those approximately a mile apart on the eastern end of the coast. Many rescues involve two or more persons.
Comparing the number of water rescues with those in previous years, Vaughan said SWFD lifeguards performed 132 water rescues in 2018 and 125 in 2019. The number of water rescues for 2020 has already exceeded 160, with two months left to go for the beach season.
In addition to an increase in numbers for water rescues this year, Vaughan indicated that other factors have been different for the lifeguard/beach safety program. He explained that in previous years beachgoers have generally respected the double red flags and lifeguards’ warnings to stay out of the water on double red flag days. Therefore, Vaughan said, in previous years most rescues have been under single red flag (high hazard) and yellow flag (moderate sure and currents) conditions.
Vaughan emphasized that beachgoers’ current disregard for double red flag warnings is “unprecedented.”
“We are experiencing outright defiance,” he said.
Vaughan said this has been in spite of not only the double red flags being flown on the beach, but also lifeguard contacts with beachgoers and warnings to stay out of the water.
Vaughan explained that a “roving” operation using ATVs is implemented on double red flag days, with lifeguards making contact with all beachgoers they encounter, not just those in lifeguard tower areas.
The lifeguard program is funded through the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC).
Vaughan deferred questions on fines and citations associated with beachgoers entering the water illegally to SWFD partners Walton County Code Compliance and the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO).
Contacted on Sept. 3, Walton County Public Information Manager Louis Svehla provided the following information on citations and warnings issued by Walton County code enforcement officers during the six recent double red flag days (Aug. 26 – Aug. 31): 11 citations, 34 written warnings, and 45 verbal warnings issued.
Svehla said the 11 people cited would be fined $100, as this was their first offense. Fines increase by $100 for each repeat offense up to $500 for the fifth offense, according to information provided by Svehla.
Corey Dodbridnia, public information officer for the WCSO, provided figures for water rescues responded to during 2020 by WCSO personnel and enforcement of the Beach Activities Ordinance.
She reported 211 water rescues responded to during 2020 by WCSO personnel, along with 29 citations issued to people entering the water during the 19 double red flag days that have occurred this year. People cited by the WCSO for this violation are also required to pay a $100 fine based on the provisions of the Beach Activities Ordinance.
Dodbridnia also reported 234 verbal warnings issued by WCSO personnel and three written warnings in connection with swimming on red flag days and other violations of the Beach Activities Ordinance during 2020.
She noted that, while the WCSO has fewer personnel on the beach this year than in previous years, “we have tripled the number of tickets.” Dodbridnia added that the WCSO uses a strategy based on education of beachgoers to promote beach safety.
Information on the beach flag warning system, including a downloadable beach safety flyer, is available on the TDC website at www.visitsouthwalton.com/beach-safety/