Paying for lifeguards at state park is possible

info@islandpacket.comFebruary 8, 2014 

Warning flags on the beaches of state parks are a great idea that will enhance swimmers' safety. However, at Hunting Island State Park, that's not enough. There have been nine drownings there in the past 18 years and six in the past five years, according to S.C. State Parks statistics.

Hunting Island's beauty and pristine beaches make it one of the most lucrative of state parks, but the strong, ever-shifting currents off its shore can make it a treacherous one, too.

The park once had lifeguards, but the program ceased in 1998 -- previous park managers have said it ended mainly because it was difficult to find employees willing to work in a remote location for the pay offered.

Frankly, it is unlikely much has changed in that regard in the past 15 years. According to various estimates, a lifeguard program could cost more than $130,000 in the first year and approach $100,000 in subsequent years.

That's a significant expense.

It's tempting to argue that no price tag should ever be placed on a human life. The problem with that argument is that, taken to its logical conclusion, lifeguards would be stationed at taxpayer expense wherever a swimmer might enter the water by a public access point -- and such a problem is unaffordable.

It also implies that lifeguards are a fail-safe against drownings. However, we know mother nature is not easily tamed, that even well-trained human protectors suffer moments of distraction, and that otherwise intelligent people sometimes disregard wise advice and explicit instructions.

But one need not go to absurd lengths to make the case for lifeguards at Hunting Island. Summon data, instead.

Consider that the park generated more than $1.2 million in earnings last year. If the cost estimates for lifeguards are correct, the park's most inviting feature -- and its most dangerous -- could be made significantly safer for less than 10 percent of that revenue.

And that assumes the lifeguards would have no effect on revenue.

It's just as likely, however, that the comfort of their presence would mean more people are willing to visit the park more often and for longer periods. Further, their expense could be reduced by contracting lifeguard services to a company that also is allowed to rent umbrellas or other amenities to park visitors.

Consider, as well, that the park brought in more than 1 million visitors in the 2013 fiscal year, and that number has been ticking upward again after a precipitous decline between 2010 and 2011.

But drownings are on the rise at an even steeper rate, and many of the victims are from outside the area and likely unaware of the dangers of rip currents and undertows.

Indeed, that was the case when three Upstate residents died in a single incident last summer. That was the case when a Marine boot-camp graduate from Ohio drowned in September 2012. And that was nearly the case when a former Marine from Virginia dragged another boot-camp graduate and two of his family members from Pennsylvania out of a rip current in 2011.

Fortunately, Abigail Zuehlke -- the Virginian who helped save three people from that rip current -- was a lifeguard in high school. Unfortunately, many of the park's visitors might share Zuehlke's heroic reflex but lack her training.

That means even bystanders who heed a flag or know to float their way out of an undertow might endanger themselves by assisting swimmers who do not.

Posting lifeguards on Hunting Island's beaches will be expensive, but given their popularity, the revenue they help generate and the hazard they present, the state is morally obligated to accept this expense.

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