Americans will be celebrating the nation’s 239th birthday this weekend; many will be headed to the beach. The Okaloosa Beach Safety Unit shared some tips on how to enjoy the sun, sand and surf in a safe way.
The Beach Safety Unit, located at The Boardwalk on Okaloosa Island, patrols seven miles of beach stretching from Beasley Park to the El Matador on Santa Rosa Blvd. Captain Justin Cook has been a lifeguard for the last nine years and handles the day to day operations of the unit. Cook says one of the biggest challenges they have is keeping an eye on a three mile stretch of beach that’s densely populated and considered the heart of the coverage area, “We’re just here for their safety. And, sometimes they don’t realize that. Sometimes they think we’re just, you know, trying to tell them what to do. That’s really not the case; we just want to maybe move swimmers to a better location so they’re going to be out of danger or harm’s way.”
Regardless of what beach you’re on, Captain Cook advises always swimming with a buddy and staying in the vicinity of the lifeguards on duty to avoid any trouble. Cook says this is especially important when it comes to rip currents which pose one of the biggest threats to swimmers, “I would say rip currents pose one of the biggest threats. About eighty five percent of our water rescues are due to rip currents and most of these people aren’t avid swimmers.”
If you do get caught in a rip current, Cook says first and foremost try to remain calm, “You know, you want to conserve energy. If you realize you’re in trouble you probably want to start one, yelling for help and or waving your hands so that somebody hopefully sees you. And if you’re caught in the rip you want to just let it take you. Let it take you out and or you swim with the lateral current. So, you swim parallel to shore.”
An extremely helpful tool for lifeguards and beach goers alike is the beach warning flag system. Current beach conditions are represented by different colored flags flying at the beach for all to see. A green flag means low hazard, yellow is medium hazard, red is high hazard, and a double red flag means the water is closed to the public. Additionally, a purple flag represents dangerous marine life detected in the water such as jelly fish, sting rays, or sharks.
Captain Cook recommends paying close attention to the flags which can change on a daily or even hourly basis depending on the weather and water conditions. In the month of June alone the Beach Safety Unit had seventy eight water rescues. Sixty seven of those rescues occurred within a span of red flag days from June 12th through the 16th.
However, Cook says not to take a green flag for granted, “I want to let people know that, they need to know that, just because it’s a green flag doesn’t necessarily mean that I should let my kid go crazy out there. There are still hazards. You could step off the back side of a sand bar. You could go from being knee deep to being overhead in a matter of a second.”
Cook says it’s still essential to exercise caution on a green flag day because it doesn’t mean no hazard, it means low hazard, “Typically the people that get in trouble are the people that can’t swim. Because they see green flags and think oh I should get out in the water. And nope, now I’m going to go a little bit deeper. This is fun, now I’m going to go a little bit deeper. And then all of a sudden somebody disappears and you look around and hey, where’s my friend?”
If you do encounter someone in trouble Captain Cook says try to resist the urge to jump in after them possibly becoming a victim yourself. It’s best to call for assistance from the lifeguard on duty or dial 9-1-1, “We’re here for you guys. We’re here for your safety. We’re here for information. Don’t be afraid of us. Come over and talk to us. People kind of get scared about authority sometimes. Hey, we’re people too. You know, come over and talk to us we’ll be happy to inform you and you know make your stay a pleasant one.”
From Memorial Day to Labor Day lifeguards on Okaloosa Island are on duty from 9am to 8pm daily.