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Beach safety officials face busy 4th of July holiday weekend, amid recent drownings and extreme heat

[FILE PHOTO] Lifeguard tower at Navarre Beach.
Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
[FILE PHOTO] Lifeguard tower at Navarre Beach.

Recent drownings and extreme heat raise beach safety awareness ahead of the July 4th holiday weekend.

Extreme heat and recent drownings across the Panhandle have heightened awareness of beach safety heading into the July 4th holiday weekend. With so many visitors expected, beach safety officials are taking a proactive approach to keeping people safe.

“It might look beautiful and fun, but it can go from fun to dangerous to tragic very quick,” said Alex Johnson, lifeguard supervisor with Escambia County Public Safety, pointing out that the beach along the Gulf is a constantly changing environment and can be deceptive.

“Sometimes you have the mindset that we're just going to stay ankle deep or knee deep, but then you step off a sandbar, get knocked over by a wave, and you're in a current. So watch your kids. Pay attention. Be alert. Be aware. Swim near a lifeguard.”

According to Johnson, Escambia County Public Safety has 50 lifeguards covering eight miles of Pensacola Beach and provides lifeguard services for Opal Beach, Langdon Beach in Fort Pickens, and Johnson Beach on Perdido Key.

So far this year, there has been one drowning on Langdon Beach in Gulf Islands National Seashore, three on Pensacola Beach, and three on Perdido Key — all on April 6.

But, he says his areas of patrol have been spared the recent spate of rip-current-related drownings that have claimed at least 11 lives in two weeks along the Gulf Coast. Since June 15, the National Weather Service shows surf zone fatalities in Gulf Shores, Fort Morgan, Blue Mountain Beach, Miramar Beach, and Panama City. Seven of the 11 victims have been in Panama City Beach, where three people drowned on Saturday.

On Wednesday, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office released bodycam video from a deputy responding to the apparent drowning of former NFL player Ryan Mallett in Destin the day before. Mallet died later at a local hospital. He was 35 years old.

In this case, Okaloosa County Sheriff Eric Aden said dangerous riptides were not to blame.

"We were under a yellow flag, which is just a ‘swim with caution,’” said Aden, dispelling the misconception that beaches along the Emerald Coast were under red flag conditions at the time of Mallet’s drowning.

“It just seems to be just a tragic accident and not something to do with the conditions of the surf or tides or currents."

Just a few miles away, Rich Huffnagle is Chief of Beach Safety for Okaloosa Island. He feels fortunate to have had only one drowning this year and just two over the last 15 years.

The recent drownings have pointed to lifeguard shortages and questions about the effectiveness of Florida’s beach flag warning system.

Huffnagel says he thinks it’s a good system that could be made better.

“I think that getting out and promoting flag conditions is crucial,” Huffnagle proclaimed.

“We have a text “BEACH to 44144,” where you can send text,” he began. “I think that we need to use smartphones more. I think (geo)-fencing is a good option for people that are just driving in and they automatically get queued up on their phone; that could be something.”

Huffnagel explained that his staff of 28 lifeguards that cover 3-and-a-half miles of beach are key to their outreach efforts. While there have been few drownings on Okaloosa Island, he credits an aggressive new program to educate beach patrons with a dramatic drop in beach rescues, down from an average of 300 per year.

“And right now, we're hovering in the thirties or forties per year annually for rescue totals,” Huffnagle stated. “But our prevention, our contacts have gone through the roof. We're at about 800,000 contacts per year, um, on those red flag days and double red flag days. Even just scrappy yellow flag days we’re out there, working the chair rows and making those contacts.”

Florida Department of Environmental Protection

In recent days, calm surf and yellow flag conditions have prevailed.

But in the gulf, there’s always the risk of rip currents, which Huffnagle says are mostly ‘fixed’ on Okaloosa Island and are able to be marked with ‘no swim’ flags.

Another hazard is the current wave of extreme heat, which may have played a role in the drowning of Ryan Mallett earlier this week in Destin.

As with other outdoor activities, Huffnagle says hydrating is important, along with wearing sunscreen and limiting the amount of time spent having fun in the sun.

“Typically we're 120 (degrees) on these high heat index days,” he said. “We're about 120 degrees on the sand that will pull fluid out of you real fast.”

He recommends finding some shade for you and your kids, with two hours of sun tops for little ones, before retreating to the air conditioning.

“We take care of heat exhaustion patients almost on a daily basis in June and July,” added Johnson, referencing Pensacola Beach.

He said Escambia County’s beach safety education efforts also are extensive and include outreach to hotels and rental agencies, local schools, and military installations.

Prevention, he says, is the key to averting tragedies like the region has experienced recently.

“There's no way we could rescue 100,000 people that are coming out here on the beach. So we try to talk to them all before they get in the water before they come to the beach; get the word out,” Johnson said. “Like this radio interview we're doing right now, this is all part of the program for us.”

Johnson said getting their message out this time of year is crucial, with the record-breaking crowds that have come to Pensacola Beach thus far this summer, the huge crowds expected this weekend for the Fourth of July, and next week, with Blue Angels’ annual air show over Pensacola Beach.

“We're fingers crossed, hoping for calm, flat surf and sunny skies for the Blues and for everyone to enjoy,” Johnson declared.

The goal is to keep everyone safe so they can come back next year.  

“Exactly,” he said.

Copyright 2023 WUWF. To see more, visit WUWF.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.