‘People are drowning’: Destin Fire Control District begins weekend patrols along Crab Island

Savannah Vasquez
Crews from the Destin Fire Control District have begun patrolling the waters of Crab Island as a result of two drownings this year, as well as a number of near drownings.

After two drownings and one person paralyzed from incidents at Crab Island this year, Destin’s Fire Control District has decided it has had enough. For the past two weekends the fire department has patrolled the popular sand bar from Friday through Sunday on it’s fire boat, manned with three personnel; an operator, a paramedic and a lifeguard, and has already made 10 water rescues and 30 assists from potential drowning situations.

 “It’s something that needs to be done,” Destin Fire Control Chief Kevin Sasser said when asked why the department is acting now. “We need to do something; people are drowning.”

Sasser said after the third life-threatening incident happened on Crab Island last month, he met with Board of Fire Commissioners Chairman Tommy Green and initiated the weekend patrol.

“How many does it take?” Green said when asked to weigh in on the problem. “How many more lives will it take before something gets done?”

Green told The Log that the current situation on Crab Island reminds him of what locals called "Black Sunday," a dark day in 2003 when the Gulf claimed eight lives.

“We lost eight people in one day,” Green said. “That’s when the Fire Department stepped up and put in the Beach Safety program. We are charged with swimming and boating accidents…it’s set forth in the State Statutes; that’s why we do what we do.”

Jimmy Burgess, who has operated an ice cream business on Crab Island for eight years, said he has seen his share of near-drownings and has lent a hand more times than he can count.

“Definitely there’s a need for either a sign or a lifeguard to patrol the east, south and north side,” he said. “When the tide is moving out, it just sucks them right out. Over the years, we’ve thrown life jackets about 15 to 20 times a year. It’s just dangerous. They will definitely save lives if they’re there.”

However, both Sasser and Green said that the Crab Island patrol program cannot continue next year without added funding to the current budget; funding they say need not come from taxpayers pockets.

“It’s getting to be where it’s a burden on the taxpayer to cover all of this,” said Green. “We work solely on ad-valorem taxes so we have about 15,000 people paying taxes on the land, but in the summer time we have more than 80,000 people here in Destin. The funding is insufficient so we are looking to get funding from the county, as Crab Island is a county deal.”

“We have the personnel, we have the asset, we just need some help with the funding,” Sasser said, mentioning the trained staff, and the fire boat. “We are limited in funding, and that’s the ticking point. A lot of agencies don’t have the abilities to do it like we do.”

Sasser detailed that the Crab Island patrol program he will soon propose to the Okaloosa County Commissioners will run from Memorial Day to Labor Day and involve three personnel on 10-hour shifts Friday through Sunday on the fire boat, and one lifeguard on a jet ski Monday through Thursday. He estimates the cost of the program to be $45,000 per year.

In fact, City Councilwoman Prebble Ramswell has already brought one proposal to the attention of the Tourist Development Council back in April and is preparing to present it again to the Destin City Council on Aug. 17.

“I spoke with several officials and attorneys who verified this as an allowable expenditure,” Ramswell said of her April proposal. “I also sent this to the county commissioners. I fought for this because of concern regarding an increase in incidents and a need to be proactive in terms of safety and response.”

Sasser agreed saying, “We see this as trying to be as proactive as we can, although it is kind of reactive. I don’t see us stopping what’s happening out there, but the best thing we see to do is to manage it, and maybe prevent future drownings. If we partner with the county we should be able to do that the best of our ability.”