Gulf Shores Beach Safe initiative reaches into local restaurants

By Melanie LeCroy
Lifestyle Editor
melanie@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 7/20/22

Each year, the waters of the Alabama Gulf Coast claim an average of six lives.Gulf Shores Fire Rescue are doing everything they can to reduce that number.Gulf Shores Fire Inspector Justin Parks …

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Gulf Shores Beach Safe initiative reaches into local restaurants

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Each year, the waters of the Alabama Gulf Coast claim an average of six lives.

Gulf Shores Fire Rescue are doing everything they can to reduce that number.

Gulf Shores Fire Inspector Justin Parks pulled his skills with his wife and sister to create a beach safety activity sheet with the hope of getting the Beach Safe initiative in front of more eyes. The idea started as a custom coloring book to distribute during Beach Safety Week and Fire Prevention Week to elementary students and evolved into a trifold activity and coloring sheet customized with restaurant's logo and children's menu.

"We know firsthand how losing a loved one to drowning can affect a family, and it is something you never fully recover from. We wanted to do everything we can to prevent these incidents from even happening," Parks said. "My sister, Kerry Parks, is an artist and runs the glass shop in Orange Beach and has been a wonderful illustrator since she was young. My wife, Jamie Parks, is a teacher. We just pulled together and had this idea and worked together on writing a little story to go with it."

When Parks presented the activity sheet idea to Gulf Shores Fire Chief Mark Sealy, he was on board immediately.

"Justin understands that we are trying to do everything we can, so this is his contribution to that overall effort," Sealy said. "Being proactive is the biggest thing because most people that drown here didn't go into the water expecting to drown. The weight of my responsibility is to get them that information. We are not going to rest as a department until we get that information out and we prevent these unnecessary disasters."

The Gulf Shores Fire Department partnered with Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism (CVB) a year ago to create the Beach Safe Initiative and get the word out to visitors. Sealy said the lifeguards and rangers are questioning beach goers everyday about what beach safety they know and there they found that information. During the off-season, the information will be analyzed to get more targeted media coverage next year and to see what works best.

"Whenever you are chief, one of your responsibilities is determining what your community risk is, and obviously one of our biggest community risks is drownings and water safety," Sealy said. "We have six drownings a year on Alabama's beaches, so one of the things we have tried to identify is ways we can get information out to the public to prevent this. We have great lifeguards, and seldom do we have drownings in front of our lifeguards. We have so many unguarded beaches along our coast that we must be proactive in our prevention efforts."

The restaurant activity sheet is just the newest asset to the Beach Safe Initiative. The CVB has put up billboards along the Foley Beach Express and Highway 59 and launched a Beach Report and Safety page on their website. The webpage is a resource that includes the daily beach report, an explanation of the beach warning flags and rip current information. People can also get the daily beach conditions and warning flag status delivered to their cell phones by texting ALBEACHES to 888777. At the end of your vacation, opt out of the text alerts by texting STOP.

"The CVB is on board to help us because they have access to more advertising dollars. We will see a bigger presence of this next year. The biggest thing we are doing right now is learning what beach goers know and where they learn it. We are also trying to contact the condominium owners to put information in the rooms," Sealy said.

The condominium check-in process has changed, and Sealy said the days of putting a brochure at the desk are over. He experienced it firsthand back in February when he and his wife rented a condominium at the beach. He found there was no beach safety information in the condominium or during the check-in process. The department is working with rental companies to add the beach safety information to their websites, but Sealy would like to see more.

"That is something we are working toward as a city. It is not mandatory for condominium owners to do that or the rental agencies, so we have tried to encourage. I have spoken at the CVB's annual convention of the property owner's association, and we are encouraging them to do it. I would like it to go a step further and make it where they must do it," Sealy said.

"Years ago, firefighters and civilians died in fires all the time and things were done. There were code changes, and laws changed. It seems like to me that we have six drownings a year on our beaches, and we think that is just the cost of doing business. We have to figure out ways to do more to prevent this without scaring visitors. You can be safe and have a good time," Sealy said.

The community has been quick to accept the activity sheet. Parks approached Beach House Kitchen and Cocktails and DeSoto's the first week of July. They were both on board right away and are currently distributing them to their youngest customers. The Oyster House and The Lodge have also committed and are just awaiting the delivery of the sheets. Parks said he hopes to have the sheets in 10 restaurants by the end of the week.

The sheets are currently being printed at the fire station, and firefighters are folding them in the kitchen. Sealy said the process is time consuming and costly, but the price to have them printed professionally was too high.

"We are doing this in our kitchen right now. We are having to absorb the cost of the printing and paper. I don't have a budget line for that, so what we are doing is trying to absorb the cost of it. Right now, we can't supply every restaurant in Gulf Shores, let alone going outside of the city," Sealy said. "We need partners to help us with printing costs. We are supplying this right now to get it out and get the word out. Hopefully, it will take off to where people will come alongside us to help.

"I am very proud of Justin. It was his idea, and he has run with it and done a phenomenal job just like everything else he does. We are very appreciative of that. This is part of a larger thing to try to educate the public, but I think it is a key piece to it," Sealy said. "He is doing this in addition to his duties as a fire inspector. He does a great job there. We are passionate about this, and it shows."

The Gulf Shores Fire/Rescue Association, a 501c3, has been able to fund the project to this point thanks in part to a $1,000 donation from DeSoto's, a $2,500 donation from Ron Jon Surf Shop and money raised at the association's golf tournament last year.

Sealy said the digital file is available to restaurants free of charge if they will print it and place the activity sheet in their restaurants.

If you would like to obtain a digital copy for your restaurant, call the fire station at (251) 968-7422 or email Sealy at msealy@gulfshoresal.gov.

Wondering how you can help? There are several ways to help the Gulf Shores Fire Department get the activity sheet into more restaurants:

  • Make a tax-deductible donation to the Gulf Shores Fire/Rescue Association.
  • Become a sponsor for the Gulf Shores Fire/Rescue Association's second annual Golf Tournament Sept. 23. Contact Brandon Thomas at bthomas@gulfshoresal.gov or (251) 215-9208.
  • Register a four-person team to play in the golf tournament. The cost is $500 and you can register by contacting Brandon Thomas at bthomas@gulfshoresal.gov or (251) 215-9208.
  • Donate reems of tabloid size, 11 x 17, paper to Gulf Shores Fire Rescue located at 1921 W 1st St., Gulf Shores.
  • Volunteer to fold activity sheets. Call (251) 968-7422 to speak with the receptionist or email Chief Sealy at msealy@gulfshoreal.gov.

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