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Lifeguard On Duty

One drowning is too many, yet it is a sad reality for those of us who live and vacation along the coast. Walton County Beach Safety Director David Vaughan knows this all too well.

“The simplest phrase I use with people is, ‘Respect the gulf,’” said Walton County Beach Safety Director David Vaughn. “If I could get people to understand that and to have situational awareness — know where you are so we can find you — my job would be easy.

“No matter who you are, once you are subject to its {the gulf’s} whims, you are not in control,” he continued. “Follow the flag system, respect the gulf, understand what it is you’re about to deal with, and once you have that understanding and that respect, you’re set.”

Walton County lifeguards patrol 26 miles of waterfront spread between 15 towers, which are placed subject to the jurisdiction of the county itself. Their mornings consist of gathering their equipment, getting their assignments for the day, sneaking in some exercise whether water drills, running or even yoga, and then heading out to their stations to get set up.

“Once they’re on the beach, they establish communication links with our various channels, get their towers set up and get the basic creature comforts out of the way. We provide uniforms, sunscreens, binoculars and rescue equipment but they’re responsible for lunch, snacks and refreshments,” Vaughn said. “After that, they start greeting people.”

Vaughn said that the job of a lifeguard is really to sell safety and that begins with meeting people on the beach.

“We encourage our lifeguards to have big personalities and to be outgoing,” he explained. “Of course, we want them to have the skillset and the physical prowess, but they have to be willing to meet people from all over the country who come to enjoy our beaches and to give them the lay of the land.”

This informal meet-and-greet is all about the key points Vaughn has already addressed: Understanding and respecting the gulf, establishing situational awareness and recognizing the do’s and don’ts of a day by the water.

Lifeguards are most known for their water rescues but there are a range of services they provide behind the scenes.

“We do a combination of public assists, which are those things diagnosed by the lifeguard and cured without the need for additional emergency service personnel all the way to advising 911 for those calls that require medical backup,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn explained that our area is subject to rip currents, as opposed to the more commonly-referenced rip tides or undertows, and that the calmer water, compared to beaches on the east coast, can be deceptive … leading to trouble.

“When we get visitors from the east coast and people who have seen heavier waves, I think there’s a sense of complacency because of the less threatening appearance of our water,” he explained. “The waves aren’t as heavy and our beach topography is different, but it can be deceptively dangerous even when it looks like a calm day.”

Beach Safety Lieutenant Brandon Brown has seen it all firsthand, including the viral “human chains” that pop up on social media from time to time.

“We had an incident two years ago where people had tried to form a human chain to rescue someone in distress,” Brown said. “Instead, 11 people had to be rescued, nine of them went to the hospital and two of them didn’t make it. And, they were less than a mile from the nearest lifeguard.

“The vast majority of fatalities I’ve seen in my 13, almost 14 years, in beach safety have come from people attempting to rescue someone else, the person they’re attempting to rescue ends up surviving and the would-be rescuer does not,” he added.

Part of Brown’s job is getting the beach ready for the on-duty lifeguards, handling logistical issues and handling some of the county’s more advanced medical gear. Brown said the days are long for those on duty, logging 40 to 50 hours a week in the sun and heat.

“It can be a pretty grueling job,” he said, adding that beach lifeguards don’t really get spelled like lifeguards at public pools might, leaving them on alert for up to 10 hours per day. “Talking to the lifeguards actually helps pass the time; people will really tell you some crazy stories.”

Vaughn said the area suffers from a catch-22 where lifeguards are concerned. 

“During the pandemic, Florida was one of the only places open so we had the market cornered for a while. Since then, we’ve been one of the fastest-growing counties in the country,” Vaughn said. “So, we have more people than ever coming here and there’s literally a worldwide shortage of open water lifeguards. 

“The spots are hard to fill because it’s a very skill-specific job, the pay scale is mediocre and, at least here, housing is high and it’s a very expensive place to live,” he continued. “Add in the fact we’re competing with other agencies for the same talent pool and it’s challenging.”

Brown called lifeguarding an incredible job.

“I graduated from the University of Texas and pretty much all the people I went to school with are working nine-to-fives and they’re like, ‘Where are you at?’ And, I tell them I’m driving a truck up and down the beach in Destin,” he said, with a laugh. “I think anyone who’s interested in helping people, being outside and being in the best shape of your life while getting paid to do it, should explore this.”
Just like the line from “Finding Nemo,” “Fish are friends, not food,” lifeguards are friends, not foes.

“I want people to understand, we’re not out there to ruin your vacation,” Brown said. “We’re here to make sure you go home with the same number of people you came here with.”

Top Five Beach Safety Tips

  • Respect the gulf.
  • Develop situational awareness. Know the name of the beach access you’re visiting or the condo/address where you’re staying.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk to the lifeguards, even beyond requests for help.
  • Resist the urge to jump in and assist in an emergency situation. Alert a lifeguard and/or call 911. At the most, toss a floatation device to the struggling swimmer until a lifeguard can reach them.
  • Understand the flag system. Subscribe to daily text alerts by texting BEACH to 44144 for Destin and Okaloosa County or by texting FLAG to 31279 for South Walton beaches.

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