On Florida’s Gulf Coast, there’s an area prone to constant rip currents that pull people offshore — so safety is the number one priority.
Daryl Paul runs Panama City’s Beach Safety Division, and said it’ll be all hands on deck this holiday weekend.
“We’re having everybody in the Panama City Beach Fire Department assist us. Bay County is calling people in. Bay County Parks and Rec are bolstering their staff,” said Paul.
So far this year, there have been at least 60 “surf zone fatalities” nationwide, with the most reported deadly incidents at Panama City Beach, according to the National Weather Service. Seven people died over nine days just this month at Panama City Beach.
Lifeguards use a flag system to warn beach goers of danger, but Paul says many tourists ignore the warnings, and spotting a rip current for the first time can be tough.
“One thing I did notice this last past couple of days was just people just blatantly disregarding the warnings of the lifeguards,” said Paul.
Even though flags and signs are constantly up, beach personnel try their best to educate people about rip currents.
Paul says lifeguards are paramount to preventing rip current drownings. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said rip currents kill 100 people every year.
Greg Dusek, a senior scientist at NOAA’s National Ocean Service, said the number one thing people can do to stay safe is to swim near a lifeguard.
“Your chances of drowning at a lifeguarded beach are like one in 18 million,” said Dusek.
According to the reported numbers, nearly all of the people involved in drownings have been male. And at Panama City Beach, some of the drownings involved bystanders going out to rescue someone else caught in a rip current.
Dusek says the best thing anyone can do to help someone caught in a rip current is to stay on land, get a lifeguard and call 9-1-1.
“We don’t want people to be a victim trying to save someone else,” said Dusek.
But Paul says with only 12 lifeguards on his team, two of them part-time, they try to bolster their ranks with seasonal employees — but could desperately use more help with the 100,000 tourist visitors each day.
“Hallandale Beach, South Florida, they have 0.8 miles. The chief has the same amount of staff that I have for 9.6. That should put things into perspective about how many lifeguards you need per mile,” said Paul.