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Education the goal for guarding against rip current accidents

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By Brian Slattery

A lot more rip current warning signs will appear in Brunswick County beach towns between now and next summer.

The Brunswick Beach Consortium added a special update to its Aug. 15 meeting agenda for the beach communities to discuss their plans and share their thoughts.

 “A month and a half ago four people caught in rip currents who did not survive. We all hate that that happened,” said Harry Simmons, Caswell Beach mayor and consortium chairman.

Simmons said while the issue was not the purview of the consortium, it would provide a place for discussion without making any decisions or recommendations.

Each town provided a rundown of its rip current protection plans:

·      Ocean Isle Beach is providing magnets with rip current information to all rental companies and renters to educate visitors. They plan to have them in every home by September. Also, the beach patrol, which puts two people on the beach all summer, is planning to carry inflatable rings and will fly danger flags on mobile vehicles.

·      Holden Beach will also provide magnets to all homeowners; the beach patrol is out every day in summer and the fire department will have volunteers on the beach from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

·      “We’re going to benchmark other municipalities’ (programs) for a staff study to consider what to do next summer, Town Manager David Hewett said.

·      Ft. Caswell has lifeguards during the summer in a limited swim area; swimmers must stay within the boundary. The lifeguards also monitor for rip currents.

·      Caswell Beach has rip signs at all crosswalks and brochures in the town hall and property management offices.

The town also uses a flashing electronic sign to warn of moderate to high rip current days.

“We’ve thought for some time education is best. To avoid rip currents instead of getting in need of rescue,” Simmons said.

·      Sunset Beach provides brochures in the town hall and property management offices. The beach patrol is on the beach all day. And the town has ordered signs to place at all walkways.

“The first thing you’ll see (at beach access walkways) and the last thing you’ll see before you go on the beach,” Sunset councilman Wilson Sherrill said.

·      Bald Head Island will use signs, programs and the 911 system. They will have watercraft in the water as well.

“Our public safety director will perform and in-depth study,” councilman Gene Douglas said.

“Education is an area we are most interested in expanding.”

·      Oak Island Town Manager Steve Foster there is always a concern that visitors ignore the signs placed at the accesses, but they also have to contend with signs and warning flags becoming souvenirs.

“(The) four deaths in one week became a sexy issue for the media,” Oak Island Mayor Betty Wallace said. “We will keep educating with the signs, but you can’t force them (to follow the warnings). I believe we’ve done, sincerely, more than we are required to do.”

 

Lifeguards

The town representatives lightly touched on the possible use of lifeguards, but saw more problems than solutions from cost to benefit and liability issues.

“You’ve got to be very careful. What’s right for one beach may not be right for another beach,” Simmons said.

Simmons said Caswell Beach doesn’t see the same number of visitors as Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach or even Sunset Beach.

Foster said Oak Island officials discussed lifeguards with their attorney, who cautioned a lifeguard doesn’t guarantee safety and leads to liability concerns, using the example of Carolina Beach, which was sued after a drowning occurred an hour after the lifeguards went home.

Simmons said in Caswell Beach discussions, officials were cautious not to open themselves up to liability, even if that means taking a less-is-more approach that focuses on education.

Simmons said if the town set up four sets of warning flags, they would have to be concerned that an accident could happen in the time it takes to move from the west end of the beach to the east end to change the flags.

“If you don’t get that warning changed, a judge could throw the book at you,” he said.

Sunset Beach Mayor Rich Cerato said beach safety is a local issue and for safety, lifeguards could go a long way.

“We are stuck in the issue of liability,” he said.

Cerato added if a town has no liability insurance, it can claim sovereign immunity and can’t be sued.

“I think education is more important. Why put lifeguards if there is no benefit (versus the cost)? We’d have lifeguards for nobody on the beach,” he said.

“We will do the right decision for our town, as will you.”

 

County cooperation

Brunswick County Assistant Manager Steve Stone was one of the officials to encourage the discussion through the beach consortium. The county administration had a contingent including County Manager Ann Hardy listening in to the discussion.

Simmons asked if the county is interested in taking over beach protection.

Stone said the county doesn’t want to dictate programs, but would take a support role to coordinate the town’s safety campaigns, offer technical assistance or have emergency management share information.

 

Wireless assistance

At one point in the meeting, Simmons held up his cell phone to show a National Weather Service Eastern Regional Headquarters website he uses to check rip current activity. The site is www.erh.noaa.gov/ilm/beach/rip_risk.shtml.

Asked after the meeting if there are any free or low-cost phone apps that offer warning levels, Simmons said there has been interest in developing one, but nothing is available yet.

Although the rip current discussion was a one-time agenda item, the beach consortium meets again Oct. 17 in Holden Beach.

“The discussion is not over. We can’t forget the problem next summer,” Simmons said.

“If anyone has any bright ideas how to educate people, please share them.”

 

Brian Slattery is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or bslattery@brunswickbeacon.com.