Destin Fire Control District to put lifeguards on beach at Henderson Beach State Park

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log

Starting this weekend for the first time ever, there will be a lifeguard on the beach at Henderson Beach State Park in Destin. 

“It’s long overdue,” said Joe D’Agostino, the city's beach safety director. “I think it’s a huge feather in the cap for Destin, Okaloosa County and the state of Florida to show people and the rest of the state that this can get done. It just takes cooperation.”

Swimmers enjoy the Gulf of Mexico at Henderson Beach State Park in Destin. The Destin Fire Control District will provide lifeguards at the park for the first time.

In the past, state parks in Florida have not had lifeguards, according to D’Agostino, who’s worked on state beaches since the early 2000s. 

"It’s always been a swim at your own risk,” Destin Fire Control District Chief Kevin Sasser said. 

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But through the persistence of the ranger at the Henderson Beach State Park and safety director D’Agostino, beach safety coverage is on the way. 

The state has agreed to help with the initial start-up to fund the capital acquisitions to pay for three lifeguard towers and a UTV. 

“They are going to put in $40,000 to make that happen,” Sasser said. 

The Okaloosa County Commission and the county's Tourist Development Department have agreed to provide $80,000 to pay the lifeguards through 2024.  

“They are going to provide the funding and we’re going to provide the labor and management for the service,” Sasser said.

With the commission's recent approval, Henderson will be one of the first state parks in Florida to have lifeguards patrolling the beaches. Florida does not provide or fund lifeguard service within its state parks with the exception of some locally funded programs near Miami and a recent trial program in St. Augustine where some intermittent state funding was provided, according to information provided by the county.

“Henderson Beach State Park is a huge asset to both residents and tourists,” Okaloosa County Commission Mel Ponder said. 

“We already know it’s a beautiful place to relax at the beach, but the safety of our residents and guests are a priority. While the state does not typically provide lifeguards for their parks, we are fortunate to have tourism bed tax revenue available for lifeguard services and Florida DEP funding for start-up costs to increase safety at our beaches,” Ponder added. 

Lifeguard Hunter Thompson watches over swimmers from a tower at June Decker Park in Destin. The Destin Fire Control District will provide lifeguards at Henderson Beach State Park for the first time this tourist season.

The beach at the park stretches 1 to 1.5 miles, and the park often reaches capacity by 10 to 10:30 a.m. during the tourist season, said Sasser, who noted the popularity of the beach. 

“For 18 years we’ve just been running into the park and doing the rescue without being able to manage it,” D’Agostino said. “Now we will have the ability to manage the people, talk to the people and prevent drownings. ... There should be a great reduction in drownings.” 

The the Destin Fire Control District will have a lifeguard at the park starting Saturday. 

“The lifeguard will be a roving patrol on a UTV,” Sasser said.  

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Then starting Memorial weekend, there will be three lifeguard chairs at the park along with the roving lifeguard. 

“The staffing of four will continue throughout the summer. When summer is over, the roving patrol will finish the rest of the season,” Sasser said. 

Many nearby beach safety programs have had issues recently finding enough lifeguards to patrol their beaches. However, the Destin Fire Control District has enough guards. 

“We will have to do some tricky staffing, but we will have enough lifeguards,” D’Agostino said.  

A lifeguard watches swimmers at the June White Decker Public Beach Access in Destin. The Destin Fire Control District will provide lifeguards at Henderson Beach State Park for the first time this tourist season.

Destin has 50 to 60 part-time lifeguards who rotate shifts. They cover the beach from the Walton County line to Norriego Point.

“The park was a big spot that was missing for us,” Sasser said of their coverage. 

But not anymore. 

And starting Memorial Day weekend, “all public entities will be covered,” D’Agostino added.