Effort to post lifeguards on Hunting Island beach heads to Columbia

emoody@beaufortgazette.comDecember 29, 2013 

lifeguard

Rescuers search for three swimmers who went missing July 14 near a campground at Hunting Island State Park. The bodies of the swimmers, all of whom drowned, were later recovered.

FILE — File staff photo Buy Photo

No one can say with certainty lifeguards would have prevented any of the six drownings off Hunting Island State Park beach in the past four years.

Nevertheless, a group of residents is arguing that lifeguards could prevent deaths.

"We don't believe that just because we put lifeguards out at Hunting Island, there won't be people that drown," Hilton Head Island attorney Russell Patterson said. "But lifeguards do a lot of proactive stuff and don't let people get in dangerous situations. They have a lot of rules and protocols in place, and that goes a long way to keeping people from getting into trouble."

Patterson, whose family has had at least one cabin on Hunting Island for 30 years, is spearheading a group of concerned residents. They were spurred to action after Tiem Mok, 38, of Chesnee; his son, Nathan Mok, 16; and his nephew, Mikey Phomma, 17, drowned in July.

Patterson is set to argue his case for lifeguards at the beach at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 9 before the S.C. legislature.

Ralph Wagner, director of Shore Beach Service, which contracts with the Town of Hilton Head Island to provide lifeguards, has been advising Patterson on what would be effective and efficient coverage.

"I just think it's always a good idea if possible to have a guarded beach versus a non-guarded beach," Wagner said. "It's just a safety issue."

Finding qualified lifeguards, however, can be difficult, he said. Much of his 80-person staff is not from the area. Higher salaries can be an incentive.

Hunting Island has not had lifeguards since 1998, but the budget line item was left in until 2003. Previous park managers have said the program ended mainly because it was difficult to find employees.

Rough estimates are for startup costs of $41,000 to buy equipment for lifeguards and annual costs of $95,000 for salaries, Patterson said, although he is still reviewing cost estimates. He envisions one lifeguard at the campground and another two or three in popular areas of the beach. They would be on duty from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Patterson said he believes Hunting Island has enough visitors and generates enough money to support a lifeguard program, based on information he received from the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Leisure.

"We've always believed that, and now we have the exact numbers to confirm it," he said.

In fiscal year 2012-13, the park earned $1.35 million in excess of the $1.83 million it cost the state to maintain it. More than 1 million people visited, according to the records.

Some of that profit should be used to keep Hunting Island visitors safe, instead of supporting parks in other parts of the state, Patterson said.

"We don't think lives in Beaufort should be lost so they can fund (another park) that no one is going to," he said.

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he would support funding for lifeguards. It's appropriate to spend money raised at Hunting Island for park amenities before using it to support less profitable parks, he said.

"That's just a small fraction of the money that Hunting Island earns," he said after hearing Patterson's most recent estimates.

The most efficient way for the funding to be added to the budget is for Parks, Recreation and Leisure to put it in, Davis said, but if needed, legislation could be considered.

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.

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