Anytime you can see a direct return on an investment, it's an occasion to celebrate — especially when you are in the business of saving lives.
"We've extended our services to cover East Pass," Fire Chief Kevin Sasser told The Log. "The value of having a lifeguard there is immeasurable."
After three people drowned near the east jetty in East Pass over a period from 2011-2012, the Destin Fire Control District, city leaders in Destin, and representatives from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the United States Coast Guard held a series of meetings to explore what could be done in the area to keep swimmers safe.
The area near the finger jetty is a common snorkeling/diving location on the east jetty, but it's also known to create an eddy that some say is up to 50-feet deep.
At the time, Sasser told The Log that "somebody had to do something," so after meeting with the district's beach safety chief Joe D'Agostino and the board of fire commissioners, the fire district decided to place a lifeguard on a personal watercraft in the East Pass to patrol the area.
"It's very unique where you have a guard actually guarding a navigable waterway because people typically don't recreate in navigable waterways," Sasser said.
"It's just a dangerous situation," Fire Commission Chairman Tommy Green added.
Since Memorial Day, the newly positioned lifeguards have made 20 rescues, where swimmers were either in imminent danger or were putting themselves in positions where they could be in danger.
So far, "people really appreciate us being out there," Sasser told The Log.
Reports from the lifeguards themselves say they've responded to and assisted with "everything from minor medical calls to cardiac arrest, from paddle boarders, jet skis and swimmers being pulled out of the pass to WaveRunner and boating accidents," in addition to education and drowning prevention.
The guard began patrolling last season and will be out in the pass for the "100 days of summer," from Memorial Day until Labor Day, this year. Although the district would like to have someone in place for the entire summer season, it's not financially feasible for the time being.
All told, it costs the district between $20,000 to $25,000 to place a lifeguard at the pass, as well as roughly $9,000 to purchase a personal watercraft capable of supporting the operation. This doesn't include the cost of necessary equipment for an aquatic environment, such as radios and other communication devices.
The district's beach safety budget for this year totals $592,000, which doesn't "cover all of the expenses" associated with the program's operation, such as the beach safety chief's salary or the newly positioned lifeguard. The district receives $492,000 from the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council and $100,000 from the city of Destin, which assists in funding lifeguards in towers at the city’s public beach access points.
While budgets are stretched thin at the district with property values still depressed, Sasser told The Log that they would "make it work" as they plan to fund the lifeguard at East Pass from now on, unless the funding dries up.
"To run this beach safety program like it should be run, we would have to double our budget," Green said.
For now though, the district is currently working on an interlocal agreement with Okaloosa County and the Tourist Development Council that would act as a contract between the entities and designate a specified amount of funding for the district's beach safety program for a specified duration of time.
Right now, "we basically have a gentleman's agreement," Sasser said. "They can decide not to give us funding and there's nothing we can do about it."
Financials aside, both Green and Sasser cannot say enough about the impact the district's lifeguards have made while on patrol in East Pass.
"I think this has made the difference between life and death," Sasser said.