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Unguarded Beaches, Millions Of Tourists Lead To Danger, Says Lifeguards

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Jennie McKeon
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WUWF

It’s no surprise that Okaloosa County is a busy place during the spring and summer. As you drive east on U.S. 98, you’ll see plenty of out-of-state license plates.

And with all of those visitors on the road, there’s even more of them at the beaches in Okaloosa County and Destin, which spreads lifeguard duties pretty thin along the 24 miles of beach. 

“It’s been a little bit busier (than previous years),” said Joe D'Agostino, beach safety chief for the Destin Fire Department.

May and June were particularly busy for lifeguards in Destin with at least four reported drownings in the area.

Despite public awareness campaigns and beach flags, D’Agostino said there hasn’t been a decline in drownings.

“There’s no amount of public education,” he said. “Warning flags are never going to be sufficient enough to replace a lifeguard … there’s always going to be a percentage of people who ignore the warnings.”

More lifeguards would always be better, but that’s not the easiest answer. There’s been a decline in lifeguard applicants. D’Agostino said one reason is likely the pay, which starts at $13.17 an hour.

“You can probably make more money waiting tables,” he said.

For Okaloosa County junior lifeguards, the starting pay is $14.

Destin lifeguards are stretched thin with gaps as large as a mile or more between lifeguard towers. And some beaches, like Henderson Beach State Park,  are left unguarded.

In June, 46-year-old Bhuvaneshwar Karunanithi of Tennessee was swimming in the Gulf at Henderson Beach State Park when he was caught in rough surf, according to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office. He was pulled unconscious from the water and pronounced dead at Destin Emergency Room. 

“You need to have lifeguards out there,” said D’Agostino. “You can rent beach chairs, there’s concessions but no lifeguards. It’s like opening a candy shop and not putting anyone in charge of it.”

Weesam Khoury, spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said between 2017 and 2018, seven parks had lifeguards whether funding was outsourced from the county or community.  Honeymoon Island State Park in central Florida is the only coastal state park with lifeguards during peak season that is funded by DEP.

Park employees stay current on basic first aid and CPR training. Khoury said park staff are “encouraged to administer first aid to the extent of their training.” Additionally, park staff updates, signage and beach-safety flags at the ranger station are changed to match conditions.

When it comes to incidents at state parks, staff performs an “After Action Safety Review,” Khoury said.

“The Division of Recreation and Parks always analyzes whether additional measures can be taken in the future to prevent a recurrence. Incidents of drownings are tracked.”

Despite setbacks, you’ll always find lifeguards at their post.

“We’re going to do our job regardless,” D’Agostino said. “But it does make our job harder year after year.”

In Okaloosa County, Beach Safety Chief Rich Huffnagle and lifeguards try hard to stop incidents before they happen, making anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 contacts a day with beachgoers to talk about everything from the flag system to rip currents and even where to get a good steak dinner.

“We want to make that interaction before it gets to be a red flag day,” he said. “It pays huge dividends for us instead of the model of waiting on the stoop to react.”

The county is expanding on this idea by implementing beach ambassadors who will be stationed at Okaloosa Island and Henderson Beach State Park to inform guests about beach safety flags, rip currents and information on local attractions. 

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Okaloosa County Beach Safety Chief Rich Huffnagle said as long as beaches are crowded, incidents will happen.

“There’s still going to be drownings,” added Huffnagle. “With upwards of 1.5 million visitors … that’s a lot of people in the water. It’s one of the defining factors.”

Like in Destin, Huffnagle said lifeguard numbers have dropped, specifically junior lifeguards. And they’re not just in high demand, during the summer either. Warmer water temps mean less of an “off season.”

“We had water temps in the 70s in December, which kind of makes this a year-round job,” said Huffnagle. “January and February are the only really slow months. And then it’s right back into the season.”

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.