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Lifeguards Return To Casino Beach

Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media

With apologies to Thin Lizzy, the boys — and girls — are back in town at Casino Beach as of Monday. That’s the kickoff to the 2021 spring break and tourist seasons.

“We’ve been busy getting ready, getting geared up; we’ve hosted three different tryouts over the past few months,” said Alex Johnson, Water Safety Deputy Chief at Santa Rosa Island Authority. “Done interviews, we’ve done five different lifeguard training sessions, we’re starting our sixth now [and] we’ll have one more after that.”

Nineteen new lifeguards have been hired and are joining 56 returning for another season in the sun. The group underwent rigorous drills including 80 hours of open water training, and emergency medical training.

Last season, Pensacola Beach Lifeguards performed 104 rescues from drowning and 128 assists to swimmers experiencing moderate distress. Add to that 35 major medical incidents and assisted 31 patients for ambulance transport.

“[The year] 2020 was busy after the beaches opened back up; everyone came here for their weekend and vacation,” said Johnson. “They drove in and the beaches were packed. We had lots of medical calls, lots of rescues, lots of sunny days; and then we had the hurricane surfs. So 2020 was busy.”

Lifeguards also made contact with beachgoers 158,000 times during the 2020 season, providing information about rip currents, beach condition flags and other safety tips. And Johnson says, look for more of the same for 2021, reminding visitors that COVID-19 precautions will be in effect.

“Especially once the bridge opens back up we expect a lot of people to come out to the beach; I’m sure they’ve been missing it all winter,” said Johnson. “We’re expecting a large amount of people on the beach and we’re going to be ready for it. Keep your distance between groups and try not to get into large crowds. We’ve got miles and miles of beach and people can spread out, even in the lifeguard areas.”

“Swimming at one of our beautiful beaches is a way of life; don’t let a day of fun turn into a day of tragedy. Even on calm days, surf conditions can be deceiving,” intones Public Safety Director Dave Greenwood, in a 2017 video on beach safety that’s was re-released by Escambia County.

The message remains up to date.

“Especially on yellow flag days; only strong swimmers should enter the Gulf of Mexico,” said Greenwood. “On Pensacola Beach, red flags mean no wading or swimming is allowed; you can check current conditions online before you make plans to come to the beach. No matter your swimming level, never swim alone and always swim near a lifeguard.”

“Just plan in advance,” said Alex Johnson; like always there’s no dogs allowed outside of the dog parks; there’s no camping on the beach overnight and no campfires on the beach. If you have any questions you can always ask the lifeguards what is allowed and where it’s safe to swim.” 

Credit Dave Dunwoody/WUWF Public Media

Potential beachgoers can visit myescambia.com for beach conditions. One reason why large crowds are expected this year, is Pensacola Beach’s reputation as a “drive-to” vacation destination.

“With international travel being prohibited and people being reluctant to fly, all the locations you can drive to for vacation seem to get more visitors,” said Johnson. “So anecdotally and from our experience last year, there’s a pent-up demand. I expect once the weather warms up and the bridge is open it will get crowded.”

Initially, one to three towers at Casino Beach will be staffed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week; shifting from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. beginning Sunday, March 14th. As summer approaches, staffing will increase to provide coverage at up to 10 towers, including the towers at Gulf Islands National Seashore -- which begin staffing Memorial Day weekend.