You can’t out-swim a rip current, and you can’t always spot one, either. That’s the message Visit South Walton wants to stress to beach-goers, while urging them to heed the flag warning system that lines the destination’s 26 miles of beaches.
“The gulf is very inviting, but it’s a natural body of water with changing currents,” said Executive Director Dawn Moliterno. “We want everyone to enjoy the water safely so that all their South Walton memories are happy ones. Please check the flags before entering the water, and know that knee deep is too deep when RED FLAGS are flying.”
South Walton utilizes the beach safety flag warning system used uniformly across the state of Florida. Flag colors mimic those used in traffic signals, indicating the range of low- to high-risk conditions for rip currents. GREEN indicates low risk of rip current, YELLOW is moderate risk, and RED is high risk. DOUBLE RED flags mean the risk is so great that the water is closed to the public and those who enter at any depth may be fined $100. An additional flag — PURPLE — is used to indicate the presence of marine pests such as jellyfish.
Country music star Jason Aldean was among those recently fined in South Walton for entering the water under double red flags. He shared his displeasure with his six million fans on Facebook and Twitter, resulting in thousands of comments, along with national media attention.
Jon Ervin, director of marketing and public relations for Visit South Walton, views the episode as an educational opportunity.
“While we certainly want all of our beach-goers to have a positive experience, we appreciate that Mr. Aldean was able to help us raise awareness of our flag warning system,” said Ervin. “We’re encouraged that the majority of comments to his posts were in favor of complying with the system we have in place. Every time a lifeguard or deputy has to enter the water for a rescue, that person’s life is endangered as well, and we welcome any messaging that helps us avert dangerous situations.”
In addition to the flag system, Visit South Walton implements a comprehensive beach safety program. Mobile phone users who text either “beachflag” or “safety” to 67463 will get daily updates regarding flag color and surf conditions. Public service announcements air during peak season on WJHG/Channel 7, WMBB/Channel 13 and BeachTV. Beach safety fliers and the Beachgoer’s Guide brochure are provided free to lodging partners for distribution to guests. A beach flag graphic runs on the masthead of The Walton Sun weekly newspaper during peak season, while websites like VisitSouthWalton.com and 30A.com feature current flag conditions. On days with dangerously high rip current activity, an aerial banner flies with the message “Dangerous Rip Currents/Stay on Shore” to effectively warn those at the water’s edge. The free 30A iPhone and 30A Android mobile app guides also feature the current beach flag status.
The most interactive component is the lifeguard program administered through the South Walton Fire District. From March through September, lifeguards are stationed at each of South Walton’s eight regional beach accesses. According to South Walton Fire District Beach Safety Director Gary Wise, lifeguards are trained to be pro-active when it comes to safety.
We would much rather avert a water rescue than perform one,” said Wise.
“Our lifeguards educate beach-goers about the flag system and rip currents, but ultimately, safety is a matter of personal responsibility. It’s enormously frustrating to watch people re-enter the water after being warned of danger. Most rescues could be avoided if beach-goers would simply heed the warnings. A day or two of inconvenience is preferable to a lifetime of regret.”
For more information about beach safety, including identifying and escaping rip currents, go to www.VisitSouthWalton.com/safety.
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