Weather service to lead Panhandle-Alabama beach safety effort

Friday, July 25, 2003

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- A new coalition of emergency and safety officials temporarily led by the National Weather Service will try to reduce the drowning danger in six Florida and Alabama counties, officials said Thursday.

At least 18 people have drowned on Florida Panhandle beaches this year including 14 in Florida's four westernmost counties -- Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton -- included in the coalition with Alabama's Mobile and Baldwin counties. Alabama beaches have claimed at least two drowning victims this year.

The other four Panhandle deaths were in Bay County. At least 35 people have accidentally drowned on Panhandle beaches over the past three years.

The ad hoc group met for the first time Wednesday at Pensacola Beach and agreed to keep talking. The next meeting is set for Aug. 6, also at Pensacola Beach.

"Getting the players together, that was the big thing," Weather Service meteorologist Gary Beeler said. "What we are trying to do is save lives."

Beeler said the Weather Service initially will steer the group but hoped other leadership will emerge.

Participants acknowledged the best solution would be more lifeguards because all or most of the deaths have occurred on unguarded beaches.

More lifeguards sought

The U.S. Lifesaving Association, which sent a representative, has been urging that lifeguards be posted at public beaches and in front of condominiums and hotels, but local officials say they cannot afford such extensive coverage.

Lifeguards are posted at only a handful of beaches along a 100-mile stretch of the Panhandle from the Florida-Alabama state line to Panama City. Some communities have beach patrols but they often arrive too late to save a life.

The group is looking for a happy medium, but can only offer suggestions and pressure politicians who make spending decisions, Beeler said. One idea being discussed is training a volunteer lifeguards similar to volunteer firefighters.

Meanwhile, the Weather Service is improving surf zone forecasts for the Gulf of Mexico off Panhandle and Alabama beaches and will gather local information on actual conditions -- more accurate than forecasts -- for dissemination to the news media, Beeler said.

The morning surf forecasts will be expanded to cover two days instead of just one so they can be published in newspapers the next day. Swell conditions, gathered from offshore buoys, will be factored into the forecasts.

Beeler said a rare buildup of swells far from shore rather than rough surf, the usual culprit, caused rip currents implicated in eight drowning deaths on June 8 in Walton and Okaloosa counties.

Rip currents move quickly away from the beach to return water brought to shore by waves, or in this case by swells. Experts advise against fighting rip currents, which can result in fatigue or panic, but to swim parallel to shore until free.

Many beaches use a colored flag system with red warning people to stay out of the water, yellow urging caution and blue or green if conditions are relatively safe.

The group also is considering proposals to standardize flags and methods for deciding which color to post, set up an alert system and research conditions where deaths have occurred.

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