Florida beach officials and business leaders in Bay County and Panama City Beach are trying to protect tourists on Florida vacations, but they say the money isn't there.

PANAMA CITY BEACH — When it comes to beach safety, cost is the killer.

For the past 25 years, Bay County and Panama City Beach officials and business leaders have wrestled with the same dilemma: how to provide effective means to protect the tourists to whom the local economy depends, while avoiding an overbearing cost such a program might entail. It is a problem that has gone unresolved the whole time.

With multiple drownings along the Gulf beachfront in recent weeks, the debate over manned lifeguards once again has taken center stage. And as in the past, officials say they just don’t have the money.

In an interview on Monday, City Manager Mario Gisbert said that he had heard it might cost as much as $5 million to implement a full-scale lifeguard program along the 9.2-mile city beachfront — equal to the city’s current fire department operating budget. The city, he said, simply does not have that much money on hand, and is limited in its taxing authority by the charter provision that dictates its revenue can derive only from a 1 percent gross sales tax, and not ad valorem property taxes such as in Bay County and other localities.

This not the first time Beach officials have rebuffed the idea of lifeguards along the 9.2-mile beachfront. A drowning incident in the summer of 1994 triggered a nearly identical response by both those supporting lifeguards and cost-conscious city leaders.

On a late Tuesday afternoon in early June, red warning flags were flying along the 22-mile beach when two men and a woman decided to go into the water behind the Port of Call Motel at 15817 Front Beach Road. They quickly became caught in a rip current, and as they were dragged out from the beach, started screaming for help. Daniel D. Jenkins, a 23-year-old part-time beach service employee, dove into the water in a rescue attempt. While other beachgoers were helping the trio get back to shore, Jenkins drowned.

As a result of that incident and nine other drownings in the previous 18 months, a group of national experts on beach safety convened a two-day conference at Gulf Coast Community College eight weeks later. There, they pressed Bay County and Panama City Beach officials to create an effective professional lifeguard program to protect tourists and residents. One panelist noted that records from the previous five years showed that Panama City Beach was now the most dangerous beach in Florida, with 20 of the 123 drownings that occurred during that period.

But no one from the Tourist Development Council, Bay County Commission or Beach City Council attended the symposium.

Following the meeting, conference co-sponsor Dr. John Fletemeyer — an expert on beach safety and rip currents — submitted a 30-page report to the Bay County Tourist Development Council that recommended a comprehensive lifeguard program for the 22-mile beachfront.

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Several months later in January 1995, two senior officials with the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA, the national lifeguard organization) surveyed the local Gulf beachfront and met with city and county officials to discuss beach safety. Chris Brewster, then chairman of the USLA National Certification Committee, and USLA Southeast Region vice president Ed Fry, met with local officials during a two-day period discussing various options for creating a lifeguard program and how to fund it through a proposed 2-cent increase on the county tourist bed tax.

“The question was whether officials were willing to bite the bullet,” Brewster later wrote. “It quickly became clear they (local officials) were none too desirous of a solution such as this one.”

In both cases, neither Bay County nor Panama City Beach voiced support for a comprehensive lifeguard program, Brewster said. Neither governing body took any action to address the problem.

The only thing significant that occurred was when Brewster publicly criticized local officials for their lack of action.

“We stated the opinion that Panama City Beach officials had shown a callous disregard for water safety,” Brewster later recalled. In response, then-Mayor Philip Griffitts publicly threatened to sue the USLA officials for slander.

Twice more since then — in 2001 and 2008 — formal proposals were drafted by either the USLA or local ocean rescue experts reiterating the need for manned lifeguards along the Gulf beachfront. Neither effort received any consideration, participants later recalled.

In response to recent multiple drowning incidents in June and July of this year, when hundreds of swimmers flouted the double red flag warnings despite 10-foot waves and strong rip currents, the Beach City Council has ordered a new measure to toughen enforcement of the existing red flag warnings in the form of an ordinance that will receive its first of two public readings when the council meets at 9 a.m. Thursday.

The preamble to Ordinance 1494 cites the sacrifice of Vernon resident Stacey Redmon, who “gave his life saving a child from certain peril as double red flags flew overhead” in an incident at the Russell-Fields Pier on June 21. Acknowledging that up until now there has been “no legal requirement” for people to obey orders from police or fire rescue personnel to leave the water when double red flags fly, the draft ordinance makes it a misdemeanor for beachgoers who ignore a second police warning to leave the water. (Other punishments range from a verbal warning to civil penalties from $100 to $500.) The ordinance exempts swimmers attached to a surfboard with a leash, who are regarded as potential lifesavers.

Other provisions in the proposed ordinance include:

— Public lodging operators on the beachfront are required to post signs declaring “Water closed to public — Entry into Gulf of Mexico punishable by arrest” at all entrances.

— Beach service operators will be required to have on site two Coast Guard-approved “throwable personal flotation devices” available in case of an emergency.

— All beach service workers — who currently must hold certificates qualifying them as “pool lifeguards” — will be required to upgrade to the much tougher standards as “Gulf lifeguards” trained for ocean rescue.

Officials are hopeful this new provision will have a concrete impact. Fire Chief Larry Couch said in an interview on Monday that one recent drowning victim had ignored both the double red flags and three separate warnings to get out of the surf before he died.

Even the proposed beach safety ordinance that the council is scheduled to consider has problems, Councilman Paul Casto said. While he said he supports the idea of requiring all beach service employees to be certified as “Gulf lifeguards” trained for ocean rescue, Casto said he fears such a mandate will simply prompt current beach services employees to quit rather than undergo the mandatory training.

“You can’t get anyone to bus a table today, much less attend a mandatory two-week lifeguard course,” Casto added.

Officials interviewed by The News Herald gave no indications that anything more than tweaks in the existing beach safety system are under consideration.

Gisbert noted, “This is a policy problem that only council can address.”

 

This story originally published to newsherald.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network.