As the weather warms and spring continues to draw near, beachgoers will soon crowd the beach again and splash in the Gulf. While it may be exciting to think about donning those swimsuits and snorkels …
As the weather warms and spring continues to draw near, beachgoers will soon crowd the beach again and splash in the Gulf. While it may be exciting to think about donning those swimsuits and snorkels once again, it is also important to brush up on beach safety to ensure your trip goes swimmingly.
According to City of Gulf Shores Beach Safety Chief Joethan Phillips, there were 249 beach rescues recorded during the 2023 season and more than double the amount of saves as the previous season in 2022.
However, Phillips said that the increase in lifeguard rescues is most likely due to unruly spring weather, increased rip currents and a larger lifeguard staff.
"This past season we saw more rip currents, and some areas were harder for us to get to," Phillips said. "We also added more lifeguards this past summer, so adding more eyes can increase rescues."
Phillips said that while there are usually more people on the beach during the summer, there are usually more saves during the spring season.
However, according to Gulf Shores Fire Department Chief of Staff Melvin Shepard, both the city and the fire department have taken precautions in hopes of decreasing the amount of saves this season.
"Now, we have several full time guards and five full time lieutenants," Shepard said. "As soon as the second week of March, we will have lifeguards on the beach. We are trying to hire 36 seasonal lifeguards this year, which are six more than last year."
Shepard also said that the newly completed beach renourishment project could potentially decrease lifeguard saves needed.
"Last year with the beach being eroded the way it was, it created more dangerous areas, and that erosion occurred over time. Hopefully the project will help the dangerous areas we had last year," Shepard said. "It could be down this year, but it is hard to say what led to those numbers being higher."
Shepard also suggested that beachgoers take certain safety precautions when visiting the island's beaches, such as staying educated on beach conditions and safety.
"Mainly just look at the conditions before you enter (the water), and make sure you aren't entering into water that is rough," Shepard said.
"Understand that you have several different factors playing against you, but we have flags posted at every condo and access point."
In August 2023, several Baldwin County public safety agencies gathered for a roundtable discussion on beach safety, which included 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.
At the meeting, Shepard and Phillips stressed the importance of staying educated on rip currents and urged swimmers to not overestimate their swimming ability.
"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. "There are still rescues and drownings on yellow and green flag days, and we pull people out on calm days as well."
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. Most of our efforts are focused on the (Beach Safe) text messaging system. It gets the beach conditions in their texts every day, and once they (visitors) leave they can opt out."
To opt in for the most updated information on beach safety, text ALBEACHES to 888-777 to receive daily beach conditions via text messages. Beach and weather conditions are also included in Gulf Coast Media's The Wave newsletter, emailed for free to readers twice a week.