Beach safety officials across the Emerald Coast are gearing up to have lifeguards back at their towers by the second weekend in March.
From Navarre Beach to Rosemary Beach, crews are filling their rosters and training for water rescues as well as medical emergencies.
Most lifeguards will return full time March 9. The top priority will be dealing with crowds and educating beachgoers.
“We have a pretty compliant crowd for the most part,” Destin Beach Safety Coordinator Joe D’Agostino said. “The biggest danger in Destin has always been the rip current.”
After studying water rescues over the past seven or eight years, D’Agostino says the trend is obvious.
“Looking at our statistics, probably about 90 percent of all the rescues we have are rip current-related,” he said.
Too often, beachgoers excited to be in the Gulf of Mexico “overestimate their abilities in the water,” D’Agostino said.
On Okaloosa Island, lifeguards will urge swimmers to be aware of water conditions and use common sense, said Tracey Vause, beach safety director for Okaloosa County.
“Swim near a lifeguard. Be informed. That’s our message and always has been,” he said. “Our spring break on Okaloosa Island is typically mild. Our biggest problem … is underage drinking.”
In South Walton County — an area that has grown in popularity among college students — lifeguards deal with a little bit of everything.
“The best (plan) is to prepare for the worst, be prepared for the crowds, be prepared for people not obeying the signs, for people not obeying the beach flags,” said Gary Wise, beach safety director for the South Walton Fire District.
In 2012, college students flocked to South Walton beaches by the thousands and often presented challenges for rescuers. In areas such as Miramar Beach, lifeguards and other first responders had trouble getting past the massive crowds to find the people who needed help on shore or in the water.
“It is particularly challenging,” Wise said. “We would hope with them being college students, they would use common sense, but unfortunately that is not always the case.”
Wise said his lifeguards will urge beachgoers to be respectful to those around them and to heed the posted beach flags.
“Not everybody who comes to the beach wants to drink,” he said. “Not everybody who comes to the beach wants to have loud and obnoxious people around them.”
Another trend Wise noticed last year was visitors leaving trash on the beach.
“There’s over 100 trash receptacles on South Walton’s beaches,” he said. “It’s basically disrespectful and appalling to the environment as well as other people. It’s dangerous; the plastic for the turtles. There’s just an infinite number of reasons not to leave your trash on the beach.”
In the next two weeks, beach safety officials in Okaloosa, Walton and Santa Rosa counties will finish hiring and training lifeguards for the spring.
In South Walton, beach safety officials have added a ninth lifeguard tower at Miramar Beach.
“We will be hiring 32 seasonal guards, and they will be doing a total of 88 hours of (United States Lifesaving Association) and first-responder training,” Wise said.
Okaloosa Island will have 19 lifeguards this spring and summer.
“We have a pretty big group of returning staff this year,” Vause said. “They’re all experienced lifeguards. It makes a big difference for us.”
Navarre Beach officials will continue to have a pool of 12 lifeguards.
Destin will add two positions — at the old city pier and East Pass — for a total of 40 lifeguards by Memorial Day. The East Pass lifeguard will use a personal watercraft to the patrol the area, D’Agostino said.
“The people I have coming back all have an average of four to five years’ experience,” he said.
D’Agostino said he’s expecting another busy spring followed by an equally busy summer.
“I can remember my first year here, we used to come off the beach between spring break and summer,” he said. “You couldn’t do that now. The amount of people attending is growing.”