Beach safety program begins on Gulf Coast

By Guy Busby
Government Editor
guy@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 4/1/22

ORANGE BEACH — Too many people are dying each year on Baldwin beaches, said local first responders announcing a campaign to prevent more drownings and other tragedies.

The "Beach Safe" …

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Beach safety program begins on Gulf Coast

A yellow flag flies over the beach in Orange Beach on Tuesday, March 29. Yellow flags warn of moderate surf conditions. The new "Beach Safe" campaign was launched March 29 to educate the public about the meanings of flags and other beach safety measures.
A yellow flag flies over the beach in Orange Beach on Tuesday, March 29. Yellow flags warn of moderate surf conditions. The new "Beach Safe" campaign was launched March 29 to educate the public about the meanings of flags and other beach safety measures.
GUY BUSBY/GULF COAST MEDIA
Posted

ORANGE BEACH — Too many people are dying each year on Baldwin beaches, said local first responders announcing a campaign to prevent more drownings and other tragedies.

The "Beach Safe" program was announced during the Gulf Shores/Orange Beach Tourism annual tourism summit held Tuesday, March 29, at the Perdido Beach Resort. The program will provide information to beach visitors about warning flags, the effects of rip currents and other precautions.

Gulf Shores Fire Chief Mark Sealy said too many lives are being lost and many more put in danger on local beaches. He said an average of six people drown each year swimming in the Gulf in Baldwin County.

"We're going to do something about it," Sealy said. "It's unacceptable for people to come here and take their loved ones home in a body bag because we didn't tell them the dangers of what we know. That's why we're here."

Sealy said building codes and other safety measures have been put in place to reduce the dangers of fires for residents and firefighters. The Gulf beaches, however, remain a danger for visitors and first responders.

"It's unacceptable to me for our residents and visitors to drown in that Gulf unnecessarily," Sealy said. "And we've got to do a good job of educating them. Yes, we've got great lifeguards. They do a tremendous job. Our young people that go and jump in that surf."

He said one person who jumped into the surf trying to save someone was a Baldwin County sheriff's deputy. Deputy Bill Smith died in June 2021 trying to rescue three people in the water in Fort Morgan.

Orange Beach Fire Chief Mike Kimmerling said that in 2021, 595 swimmers were rescued off Baldwin beaches.

"If you took just between Memorial Day and Labor Day and took 595 and divided it out, that's 6 1/2 rescues a day, a day," he said. "Those are actual rescues. Those are not just going and telling somebody to get out of the surf."

Kimmerling said that while some tourist industry promoters might not like to talk about the dangers of the Gulf, a single tragedy can cause many people to never return.

"Sometimes we bring things up, you get people who want to take a hands-off approach because this isn't good news. It isn't good news. But you know what? You all want these families to come. We want these families to come here. We want their family's families to come here. We want their family's families' families to come here. But when you put somebody in the back of an ambulance and it's a bad experience and they don't survive, that family's never going to come back and their family's family's not going to come back because they're not going to have anything but bad memories about here. We want to create good memories, and this is a really tragic time when these things happen on the beaches."

Kimmerling said first responders and residents cannot control the weather or Gulf conditions, but people on the coast can inform visitors about the flag system and ways to get beach reports texted each day.

Swimming in the Gulf is not like swimming in other places, Kimmerling said.

"We have to teach them that this is not a swimming pool. You can't reach the side. There is no rope to grab onto. There are things out there that your swimming ability matters. We've got to educate them to watch their kids and pay attention," Kimmerling said. "We had a rescue the other day, four college-age students, four, chasing a $15 boogie board. We put five swimmers in the water. It happens all the time."

Other hazards include lightning and even digging holes.

Sealy said some holes found in the beach are seven or eight feet deep. One group on the beach was found trying to dig a tunnel between two deep holes. Sand is unstable and can collapse easily, trapping anyone caught under it. One cubic yard of dry sand weighs more than a ton, according to reports.

Another proposal in the program would be to have beachfront buildings post their addresses on the beach side of the structure where anyone calling 911 for help can see the location.

"People come and look at the back side of the condos from the water, you don't know where you're at," Kimmerling said. "In 911 calls, we have two minutes to rescue people. Time is of the essence so addresses on the back of the buildings are critical."

Beth Gendler, director of Gulf Shores/Orange Beach Tourism said the safety campaign will be similar to the Leave Only Footprints program started several years ago to keep beaches clean and undisturbed.

She said the tourism office and supporters will provide a similar amount of funding for the "Beach Safe" program.

"We expect this to take off like that, be adopted by everyone and be a part of our community," she said.

She said the tourism office is working with fire departments in Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Fort Morgan, as well as Baldwin County 911, the Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency and community supporters to develop the campaign. She said that while the tourism office is part of the program, she agreed that the warnings must be serious.

"I told them I want this to be scary enough to get everyone's attention, so don't let us marketing people soften the message too much because we really do need to grab people's attention," Gendler said.

She said the program will be rolling out in upcoming weeks with printed material available for distribution at rental properties and hotels. Banner planes are flying over the beaches with displays advertising the program as well.

She said visitors and residents can also receive daily reports on Gulf conditions and warnings by texting "albeaches," to 888777.

More information on the campaign and beach safety is also available on the Gulf Shores/Orange Beach Tourism website at www.gulfshores.com/partners/campaignportal/.

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