Rip currents can happen at any time. The media tends to warn the public only when conditions are severe, such as when a tropical storm approaches. All that is really needed is the proper bathing conditions and sufficient flow of water from tidal or wave forces to cause water to seek its own level and a rip current develops.
Rip currents have no respect for bathing hours. In fact, most drownings take place before or after posted bathing hours or outside of protected bathing areas.
In protected areas lifeguards, practicing good preventive techniques, can direct bathers out of dangerous conditions, or in the alternative affect a rescue before the bather even knows they are in danger.
Whether an ocean beach is completely unprotected, an area is closed to bathing, or it is before or after posted hours of operation, rip currents are waiting to claim yet another life.
What can municipalities do to mitigate this loss of life?
First, have good entry signage that clearly states the hours of protected bathing and that bathing outside of these hours is unprotected, ill-advised, and/or prohibited. This signage should be clear, concise, and consistent.
One step our lifeguard corps takes is to physically remove all bathers from the water at the end of protected hours. I don’t mean whistle wave and be on your way. The sitting guards whistle to alert the bathers while other lifeguards rescue buoys in hand, walk down to the water’s edge and require all bathers to exit the water and stand on the sand. Once standing on the sand they are instructed that the beach is now unprotected, and further instructed not to reenter the water.
Patrons love to inquire if they can bathe at their own risk. The lifeguard should never be trapped by this question and answer yes. This puts the lifeguard and by extension the employer in the position of appearing to grant permission to engage in an action that the lifeguard knows to be fundamentally dangerous.
One evening about 45 minutes after we had been closed to bathing, and our motorized patrol soon to end, I noticed a man which I guessed to be in his late thirties standing on the shoreline looking out to sea. He was watching two teenaged girls who were in chest to neck deep water, and about 10 yards apart.
I took a buoy down to where the man was standing and informed him that the beach was unprotected, and he should not allow his daughters to be in the ocean at this time. He took umbrage at my warning stating he was a good swimmer and was keeping a close eye on his children.
I restated my warning at which he stepped away ignoring me. As I began to walk away I left him with a final question to ponder. If both your children get in trouble which one will you choose to save? He gave no reply, but after I had traveled a short distance away and looked back I saw him waving to his daughters calling out it was time to go home.
One great difficulty that most ocean beaches have is the inability to effectively close the property to potential bathers and the public in general. Pools by law are fenced and gated and the public can effectively be locked out. Beaches traditionally are open for the public to sunbathe, or simply stroll along the shore or boardwalk. Our oceanfront beaches are open until dark, with specialized areas open until 10:00 PM.
Some municipalities have sufficient police presence to keep the water closed to bathing under penalty of law. Failing this luxury, I strongly suggest a motorized patrol of qualified lifeguards, with reliable radio communications be maintained for a minimum of one hour past the official closing of bathing.
No matter what one is trying to prevent, from tooth decay to heart attacks, the most important step is education.
During this past summer (2005) on the beaches of Long Island there were many drownings. Almost all of these tragedies took place after hours and some just a short time after the lifeguards went off duty. Yet the media did little to inform the public of the dangers of bathing in unprotected waters, hoping the presentation of the event in and by itself would deliver the message.
Signage of an educational nature at key beach locations would also benefit greatly.
Signs should be large, colorful and most of all informative. It should capture the attention of the viewer and leave a positive impression.
The simple statement “unprotected at other times” may appear to meet some legal requirement, but would probably fall short under thorough scrutiny.
A number of years ago at one of our beaches, in an approximately forty yard area I counted nineteen signs each stating some sort of prohibition. If the patrons read one quarter of these signs I’d be greatly surprised. It is not how many signs, but effective signs that count.
Education should also take place in the schools. Our lifeguards have done educational programs in the local schools both on the elementary and secondary levels. The United States Lifesaving Association can provide some excellent materials, and have established lesson plans.
Jim Burke has 46 years experience as an ocean lifeguard. He is Beach Safety Supervisor with theTown of Hempstead, N.Y., Department of Parks and Recreation, which serves 750,000 residents. Burke’s responsibilities include the daily operation of lifeguard supervision for three and a half miles of ocean beach facilities. He holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Education from Bloomsburg University, Pa., a Masters Degree in Education from Adelphi University, NY. And has completed 40 years as a public school educator (retired.) Burke has brought his skills to the beach and has developed and implemented one of best ocean lifeguard training program on the east coast.