Swimming under Double Red Flags: Instead of ticketing, deputies 'try to educate people first'

Matt Algarin

While awareness is first and foremost, deputies from the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office can arrest or ticket beachgoers that do not stay out of the water under Double Red Flag conditions.

"Our biggest thing is that we try to educate people first," Lt. Charlie Nix of the OCSO told The Log Thursday. "Along with beach safety we try and warn people about the conditions as much as we can, but we can't cover it all."

Under the authority of a county ordinance, deputies can issue a notice-to-appear to beach patrons that do not obey commands to exit the water during dangerous surf. The ordinance does not apply to surfers.

Although most people obey orders to get out of the water, deputies can arrest those who do not obey, as a last resort.

When a notice-to-appear is issued, the individual is released on their signature and they must appear before a judge at a later date. Nix said there is no fine schedule in place, so deputies cannot write tickets for monetary amounts.

"I can't remember the last time we've had to write one," he told The Log. "A majority of the time we get compliance."

Councilman Jim Wood told The Log that he is OK with deputies issuing tickets to those that put their own lives and the lives of others in jeopardy, as long as it's done on a consistent basis. He said it's a "tool in the toolbox" for the deputies, and can be used to discourage people from entering the water.

With that said, Wood added that people have to exercise some common sense on their own behalf.

"Should government have to do everything to keep people safe?" he said. "Some folks don't like to follow the rules, or they just don't know what the rules are. How do you help them understand?"

Mayor Sam Seevers agreed that if tickets would help deter swimmers from entering dangerous surf, then she's all for it.

"It doesn't bother me a bit," she said. "As a council, we take an oath to protect people and if this helps do that, I'm all for it."

Okaloosa County isn't the only local municipality that has the authority to issue tickets or arrest people for entering the water when it's closed to the public.

In Walton County, Section 22-54(h) of the code of ordinances allows officials to "close or restrict use of the beach and water bodies." A violator can be fined $100. Surfers are exempt from the ordinance.

Entering the water under Double Red Flag conditions is a misdemeanor offense in Bay County, and you can be arrested by deputies. According to a story from WFSU, Bay County Sheriff's Office Public Information Officer Ruth Corley said there have been no arrests made so far.

Richard Aloy, public information officer for the Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office, told The Log that since beach flags are only "advisories, not directives," there are no penalties.

"I searched the county ordinances and could not locate anything regarding flag conditions," he wrote in an email.

At least half a dozen people have drowned between Okaloosa and Walton counties over the past few weeks due to dangerous surf conditions and rip currents.

In Destin, Beach Safety Chief Joe D'Agostino told The Log that there have been no drownings as of Thursday. Since his lifeguards took to the beach in early March, 28 people have been rescued.