While state officials are still deciding whether to assign lifeguards to Hunting Island State Park's beaches, they have another plan in place to increase swimmer safety.
S.C. State Parks is adopting a flag system to inform beachgoers about water conditions, state park director Phil Gaines said. It is the same system used on Hilton Head Island, in Charleston County and in much of Florida.
"It's the one that's most commonly used, and it's very simple and easy," Gaines said. "... It's kind of a universal thing. If you see a red flag, that (means) dangerous conditions."
The system uses five flags.
Green, yellow and red indicate low, medium and high hazards, respectively.
A second red flag is added to the high-hazard flag when the water is closed to the public.
A purple flag indicates dangerous marine life is present.
State park staff is currently writing operating procedures and has ordered the flags, signs and other needed materials, Gaines said. Installation is expected in late March or early April, and the flags will be used until October.
Park rangers will be responsible for changing flags in the mornings and as conditions shift, Gaines said. Flags and signs will be posted not only on beaches, but at beach entrances and kiosks, on bulletin boards and at other points, he said.
"It might sound like a lot of work, but we think it's well worth it," Gaines said. "We think it's another layer, another step to help ensure safety for our visitors when they come."
THE LIFEGUARD QUESTION
In a meeting two weeks ago, Gaines, Duane Parrish, director of the state's Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism and other staff met with Hilton Head Island attorney Russell Patterson and Beaufort County state Reps. Shannon Erickson, Bill Herbkersman and Weston Newton to discuss hiring lifeguards for Hunting Island.
Patterson has pushed for the lifeguards at Hunting Island since an adult and two children drowned there in July.
He has consulted Ralph Wagner, director of Shore Beach Service, which provides lifeguards on Hilton Head beaches, and estimates it would cost $136,000 to post nine lifeguards and a supervisor at the park this year. About $41,000 of that amount would cover startup costs, such as equipment and a vehicle, Patterson said. The remainder would pay the lifeguards and their boss.
Gaines said the meeting was productive and his staff is gathering information for a report to Erickson.
"He asked for 30 days to look at numbers because we'd given them an awful lot of information," said Erickson, who is eager to see the lifeguards added this summer. "... I think everyone left feeling like they were moving the ball down the field."
According to county records, the park brings in more than 1 million visitors a year. It generated more than $1.2 million in earnings last year. Patterson has asked that some of that money be used to pay for lifeguards.
Gaines said the park is a money maker, but cautioned that a single year's budget might not reflect the long-term costs of maintaining the park, such as beach renourishment, which cost $8 million when it was last performed at Hunting Island in 2006 .
Other park expenses, including personnel and advertising, are covered by the state, Erickson said.
"But I don't want to argue the money part, because quite frankly, I don't think you can put a price on a life," she said.
THE 'END GOAL'
The state has four other state parks along the Atlantic Ocean.
The two at Myrtle Beach have lifeguards as part of a $30,000 annual contract with Horry County, which expires in 2015, Gaines said.
Edisto Beach State Park has no lifeguards.
The state provides lifeguards at Huntington Beach State Park in Georgetown County.
Nine people have drowned at Hunting Island during the past 18 years, according to numbers provided to Patterson by Parrish, and at least six in the past five.
Edisto has had one drowning in five years; Huntington Beach had one in five-plus years, and none has occurred at the Myrtle Beach parks in the past five years.
Hunting Island has not had lifeguards since 1998, but the state budget line item was left in the spending plan until 2003.
Previous park managers have said the program ended mainly because it was difficult to find employees.
Gaines said it is hard to find lifeguards willing to work in remote locations like Hunting Island.
"I think everybody is very clear on our end goal, and our end goal is, we want Hunting Island State Park to be as safe as it can be," Gaines said.
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.