Lifeguards viewed as a luxury in one part of Beaufort County, a necessity in another

July 5, 2010 

From his station in front of Shorewood on South Forest Beach, Shore Beach Services lifeguard Kyle Hickey keeps an eye on swimmers in the surf during high tide Friday afternoon.

JAY KARR

Kaleb Triplett was swimming in water above his waist Thursday on Hilton Head Island, and his mother wasn't happy about it.

"Too deep!" Carol Triplett yelled to her 12-year-old from her beach chair.

She then stood and walked to water's edge, dropping her paperback book beside her chair.

"Come in some right now!" the Maryland resident called. "You better listen to me or you're out of the water for the rest of the day!"

Lifeguard stands were on her left and right, but both were empty.

"It does surprise me there aren't lifeguards around here," she said. "Guess I better watch him even closer."

There are more than 20 miles of beaches in Beaufort County that draw millions of tourists every summer. Of those beaches, only Hilton Head's have lifeguards, and even there, experts say parents should be vigilant since it's impossible for lifeguards to see all that's going on.

There are no lifeguards at Hunting Island State Park, where more than 1.2 million visitors go each year. Fripp Island doesn't have lifeguards either.

Hunting Island hasn't had lifeguards since 1998, said park manager Jeff Atkins. Drowning concerns in Beaufort County were heightened last month when Tyreck Parker, 9, fell from the rocks of Hunting Island State Park and was found dead days later.

WHY NO LIFEGUARDS?

The biggest reason there are no lifeguards on Hunting Island: No one wants the job, Atkins said.

"The primary reason we stopped having them is we couldn't find them," Atkins said. "We were paying them well above minimum wage."

The park kept money in its budget until 2003 for lifeguards before finally spending the money on other things.

Some visitors are surprised when told no lifeguards are on duty. But most tell park rangers they don't want to pay a higher access fee, and many guests are locals who don't expect lifeguards, Atkins said.

"We're not against having lifeguards at all," he said. "We'd want to see the interest and see a plan submitted in writing. We definitely would consider any plan."

Four people have drowned at Hunting Island in the past 12 years, although Atkins said lifeguards might not have prevented any of the deaths. Most occurred late at night and on far reaches of the island.

Atkins said the beach probably would be safer with lifeguards, but added that they can give a false sense of security to adults who otherwise would keep a closer eye on young swimmers. He also noted that deputies from the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office and additional park rangers patrol the beaches during high-traffic times.

At his previous job at Table Rock State Park in the Upstate, parents left their children unsupervised because they knew lifeguards were present.

"There's no confined limits of the ocean; currents and waves aren't steady and ocean visibility is low," Atkins said. "Unfortunately, parents don't take this into consideration."

A NEED FOR LIFEGUARDS?

Lifeguards are crucial to preventing dangerous situations and responding immediately should a potential drowning happen, said Chris Brewster, president of the U.S. Lifesaving Association.

Nationally, about 10 people drown each day. More than one in five drownings involves a child 14 or younger, according to a CBS News investigative report.

"It's a disservice to the public to not have lifeguards on beaches," said Gerry Dworkin, a national lifesaving consultant. "When the public comes and utilizes the beach, they don't even think about lifeguards and whether or not they are there. It's assumed there are lifeguards there for safety, and you absolutely need them."

He agrees that lifeguards aren't a full-proof way to preventing drownings.

"Even if there are lifeguards present, you need to be providing supervision," he said. "Parents are the first line of defense. Parents still have accountability and supervision."

On Fripp Island there have been no drownings in at least 15 years, general manager Kate Hines said. The surf at the private island typically isn't rough, and the water isn't very deep, she said.

"We keep telling people to be careful about sandbars, but most people seem to be pretty smart," she said. "Parents are careful about keeping their kids safe, and because there are no lifeguards, they're even savvier."

But Brewster, from the lifesaving association, said figures indicate lifeguards matter.

"Without lifeguards, the risk of a drowning increases dramatically, especially in a resort area where people don't know about rip currents," he said. "Simply put, they just need to be there."

HOW MANY LIFEGUARDS?

Dworkin, the lifesaving consultant, recommended one lifeguard for every 300 feet of shoreline.

Even on Hilton Head, which does have lifeguards, there are 20 for 12 miles of beach. Local officials, however, say that's adequate.

"The highest areas we've adequately staffed, and we're satisfied with the work lifeguards do," said Scott Liggett, director of public projects for Hilton Head Island. "There are areas that don't have lifeguards, but those are not the highly populated areas."

Busy stretches of the beach, including Coligny, Driessen, Folly Field, Alter Lane and Islanders Beach are typically staffed with lifeguards during the summer. They're strategically placed in other areas, too, said town facilities manager Julian Walls.

Lifeguards are trained to respond to any crisis immediately, and can quickly be mobilized from other units if needed, Walls said.

The town pays Shore Beach Service about $150,000 a year for lifeguards and other services, Walls said. Shore Beach Service is accredited by the U.S. Lifesaving Association, according to the association's website. That means its lifeguards have been trained according to strict standards and know proper emergency protocol, Brewster said.

"We don't get into how many lifeguards a beach has," Brewster said. "The rating is about how well they're trained."

Shore Beach Service is allowed to profit from its commercial activities on the beach -- renting umbrellas, beach chairs and other items. The town receives 1 percent of what Shore Beach Service makes, which was $20,716 last fiscal year. That money goes into the general fund.

OTHER APPROACHES

Myrtle Beach contracts with four companies to patrol its beach, said Mark Kruea, the city's public information officer. Lifeguards are in place from the middle of April through September on the Grand Strand, with more during the peak months.

"It's an economical way to provide good lifeguard service and beach service," he said.

But even that can be troublesome, Dworkin said. Lifeguards may be too focused on renting out equipment to actively patrol waters.

On Tybee Island in Georgia, the town spends $320,000 a year to provide 14 lifeguards to cover three miles of beach, said Tybee Island Fire Chief C.L. Sasser. He receives $320,000 a year for ocean rescue and staffs seven lifeguard stands, along with providing rescue personal watercraft and ATV vehicles.

Sasser said many areas spend more on lifeguards and beach safety, hoping to avoid unnecessary drownings and lawsuits.

"We'd even like to do more, but you're not going to stop every drowning," he said.

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