With dramatic increase in drownings, Walton County uses mobile messaging on beach flags

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — There's one thing on almost two dozen private Waste Management trucks that roll through Walton County that most decidedly isn't garbage.

Within the past few days, Waste Management — the private company that collects trash under a contract with the county — has joined ranks with various departments of the county government to help educate visitors and residents alike on the beach flag warning system used to alert beachgoers to potential hazards in the Gulf of Mexico and to keep them out of the water when surf conditions are dangerous.

Today, 23 Waste Management vehicles are equipped with magnetized placards explaining the beach flag warning system. They join the fleet of Walton County Code Compliance Department and Walton County Emergency Management vehicles displaying the placards.

Walton County officials and representatives of Waste Management pose beside a Waste Management truck displaying a placard explaining the beach flag warning system used on the county's beaches.

“Increasing public awareness of the natural conditions which at times pose significant risk along our beaches is a critical element to improve public safety," South Walton Fire District Chief Ryan Crawford said in a news release issued earlier this week to announce the county's latest effort to boost public understanding of, and compliance with, beach flag warnings.

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“Together we are working on innovative and creative ways to expand beach safety and education, rip current recognition and the beach flag warning system," Crawford added. "We encourage our citizens to always be aware of current surf conditions, and to swim near a lifeguard.”

The magnetized beach flag placards are being provided to Waste Management and the county by the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC). Funded through the proceeds of a 5% tax on accommodations charged to visitors to the south end of the county, the tax raises millions of dollars annually.

The TDC uses the revenue to fund the county's lifeguard program, to market the county to potential visitors, and for other work.

'A team sport'

Jason Cutshaw, interim director of the Walton County TDC, praised the effort to improve public understanding of the beach flag warning system.

"We pride ourselves on cultivating a safe memorable experience for our visitors and our community," Cutshaw said in the news release announcing the partnership. "Educating the public on the beach flag system is an important part of that and it’s partnerships like this that help to make that happen.”

A Waste Management trash collection truck displays a magnetized graphic explaining the meaning of the various flags used along Walton County beaches to advise beachgoers of potential safety issues, and to keep them out of the water during dangerous surf conditions.

Kaleb Morain, district manager for Waste Management in Walton County, said getting involved in the beach flag education initiative was a natural move for the company, for which safety is a daily concern.

“Safety is a core value of Waste Management and an essential part of our business,” Morain said in the news release. “We are enthusiastic about this partnership that will help us achieve our ultimate goal — keeping the Walton County community safe this summer.”

Also enthusiastic is Walton County Emergency Management Director Jeff Goldberg. In the news release announcing the county's latest effort to boost safety along the county's beaches, Goldberg noted that "emergency and disaster response is a team sport. ... Without these great partnerships and engaging the whole community ... we cannot effectively prevent, respond and recover from emergencies and disaster.”

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And it's not necessarily hyperbole to call what is either ignorance or willful neglect of the county's beach flag system — in particular, the double-red flags that signal the Gulf of Mexico is too dangerous to enter and is off limits — an emergency.

'Folks don't understand'

Early in the tourist season, Walton County tallied four drownings — already above last year's total for the entire season — and South Walton Fire District Beach Safety Director David Vaughan has repeatedly told county officials that the staff working the beaches are encountering outright defiance among people not paying attention to the double-red warnings flags.

A recent Sunday walk along the beach lining Scenic Gulf Drive illustrated Vaughan's point.

A lifeguard driving an ATV along the shoreline during double-red-flag conditions stopped occasionally to tell people to get out of the water. The people — children often among them — would comply, but as the lifeguard moved down the beach, many of those previously warned would sneak back into the water and watch warily for the lifeguard's return.

A Walton County Emergency Management vehicle displays a graphic explaining the beach warning flag system.

The increased communication regarding the beach flag warning system is an outgrowth of a renewed county focus on beach safety issues, which has identified unfamiliarity with the system as on ongoing issue.

At an April meeting of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners, Vaughan told commission members that "(i)t's always concerning to us (in reviewing drownings and water rescue incidents) that folks coming here don't understand what the beach flag system is. But the reality is, from polling, is that's still the case ... and so we have to come up with ways of overcoming that."