GULF SHORES — Several Baldwin County public safety agencies gathered for a roundtable discussion on beach safety at the Gulf Shores Activity Center on Aug. 30. The discussion featured speakers …
GULF SHORES — Several Baldwin County public safety agencies gathered for a roundtable discussion on beach safety at the Gulf Shores Activity Center on Aug. 30.
The discussion featured speakers from Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, Gulf Shores Fire Department, Orange Beach Fire Department, Fort Morgan Volunteer Fire Department, Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency, Baldwin County Sheriff's Office, Baldwin County 911 and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.
Discussion topics included an overview of the BEach Safe campaign in Baldwin County, current beach safety initiatives, common beach hazards and potential risks, safety guidelines and best practices for beachgoers, and how to leverage partnerships with the media in promoting beach safety awareness.
According to Joethan Phillips, beach safety chief, there have been 220 rescues this year, an increase from the 153 rescues recorded last year. Weather plays a role in the number of rescues needed per year, as does an increase in tourists visiting Baldwin's sandy-white beaches.
Shepard said the city of Gulf Shores is looking to hire more lifeguards next year, increasing the amount of beach supervision.
"Lifeguarding is a tough job to get and tough job to keep. We hired 30 lifeguards this year, and we are looking to hire 40 next year," Shepard said. "And we still have 3 miles of beach in our city west of Callaway Pass that is not covered. We respond there, but we don't have the manpower right now to control that area."
According to Gulf Shores Fire and Emergency Services Chief of Staff Melvin Shepard, the biggest way for beachgoers to stay safe in open water is to be prepared and educated on safe swimming practices.
"It is important to know how to escape rip currents. You need to remain calm and float because once you start to panic it's hard to stop," Shepard said. "Check weather and surf conditions daily before going out to the beach, and if you get caught in a rip current wave and call for help."
Shepard said there are over 30,000 people enrolled in the city's free information messaging system that sends subscribers daily beach conditions, and he said that is a great way for visitors to stay safe and updated.
"Most of our efforts are focused on the text messaging system. It gets the beach conditions in their texts every day, and once they leave they can opt out," Shepard said. "We have also started putting our BEach Safe information on kids menus in local restaurants."
Shepard said that while he is always looking for more ways to educate people on beach safety, he urges swimmers to not overestimate their swimming ability and always stay alert when in the open water.
"There are still rescues and drownings on yellow and green flag days, and we pull people out on calm days as well," Shepard said. "Most people who come down here think they are a great, phenomenal swimmer, but in my experience most people shouldn't even be trusted to take baths. Parents may enroll their kids in a two-week swim instruction course, but it is important to teach your kids more than that and beyond just one session."
Shepard said parents should also refrain from using any sort of inflatable device in the water and should opt for Coast Guard-approved life jackets.
"The rule of thumb is if it can inflate, it can deflate," Shepard said.
Shepard said that by implementing these these safe swimming practices, it can also decrease the amount of times a lifeguard enters the water to perform a save, keeping the beach rescue team safer as well.
"Every time one of those kids goes out there, that is someone's baby as well. We have 19-year-old kids going out to save a stranger. We have the opportunity to reduce that impact as well," Shepard said. "It is easy to do our jobs on the beach, but we are always looking for ways to tweak it and make it better. You are not going to be able to prevent every accident from happening. There are always going to be accidents, but if we could get the reach of our BEach Safe program to 60%, I would say that is success."