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Why are there no lifeguards in Brunswick County?

Updated: Jun. 17, 2021 at 6:24 PM EDT
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BOLIVIA, N.C. (WECT) - Brunswick County saw its first drowning death of the year last week.

Allen Whitley, a father from Mount Gilead died saving his 11-year-old daughter and another child stuck in a rip current in Holden Beach. The tragic accident has renewed a call to add protections to area beaches.

“There’s no lifeguards here, it’s just.... there’s no flags that warn you how rough the water is, there’s nothing. All you can do is call 911 and pray,” said mother Charity Dalton.

Dalton’s son, Thomas, was one of the children Whitley rescued from the rip current last week. She was one of three adults that jumped in the water to save the children as the current pulled them further from the shore.

None of the beach towns in Brunswick County have lifeguards.

Horry County beaches have them to the south, and New Hanover County beaches have them to the north, but Brunswick County towns have decided to go in another direction with their beach safety programs.

There have been talks of adding lifeguards to the strand in the past. The last big discussion happened in 2013 in the Brunswick Beach Consortium, a group made up of representatives from each town.

The proposal came up after a spike in drownings. One person in favor of adding lifeguards was the mayor of Sunset Beach at the time, Rich Cerrato.

Representatives from Wrightsville Beach came down to give a presentation about their lifeguard program, but at the end of the day, the idea never went anywhere.

“I was hoping that it would foster further study to see whether lifeguards should be implemented in Sunset Beach and in Brunswick County, but it never caught on fire. It was apparently — it just evaporated, but the concern is still there,” said Cerrato. “I think they have a responsibility to study the issue. Just to study it and come up with the information so people can be informed.”

No study or formal investigation into adding lifeguards was ever commissioned by the group.

Cerrato believes a combination of price concerns and liability concerns had a lot to do with why no changes were ever made.

Meeting minutes from 2013 reveal the discussion was tabled until they got more information from legislators about a bill that could have put a liability cap on municipalities. The Brunswick Beach Consortium split in 2015.

If you ask each town, though, the exact obstacles to adding lifeguards vary.

Bald Head Island

Beach Patrol: Public Safety Officers patrol in two Quick Response Vehicles, which are equipped with a variety of supplies for first response to medical emergencies, fires, and water rescue, as well as for law enforcement.

Water rescue: Public safety officers trained in water rescue.

Flag System: The town does not currently have a warning flag system, but is working on having a flag and signage posted near the marina so it can be seen by visitors as they arrive.

Signage: Yes

Flotation Devices: Yes

“Lifeguards have not been discussed recently at the Village and when it was discussed years ago, liability was the main reason for not having them,” said Village of Bald Head Island public information officer Carin Faulkner.

Caswell Beach

Beach Patrol: First implemented in 2020 to assist with town ordinances and provide quick response in case of emergencies.

“Caswell Beach is one of the smaller municipalities located in Brunswick County, so resource allocation is always a consideration. Having said, the Town has worked to improve safety as well as service to the community. Last year, the Town implemented a beach patrol to assist with enforcement of Town Ordinances and provide quick response in case of emergencies. The beach patrol also allows “the Town” to communicate with the public in a direct/ specific manner, which can be difficult due to the weekly turnover of visitors,” said Caswell Beach town administrator Jeff Griffin.

Holden Beach

Beach Patrol: In the past, code enforcement has patrolled beaches

Water rescue: Town contracts with Tri- Beach Fire to provide water rescue services

Flag System: No

Signage: Yes.

Flotation Devices: No.

Oak Island

Beach Patrol? Oak Island Police Dept Patrols strand.

Water rescue? Yes, through Oak Island Water Rescue.

Flag system? Yes.

Signage? Yes.

“The right to enjoy our natural resources by everyone is unquestionable. In complementing that right, the Town of Oak Island continues to work within the resources available, to provide the safest possible environment for residents and visitors alike.

“We maintain support of the established response methods, such as the Oak Island Water Rescue (www.oiwr.org), and regular beach patrols of the Oak Island Police Department. Additionally, the Town is striving to incorporate new and innovative education and prevention methods. These include public awareness campaigns through television and social media, as well as the use of loudspeaker messaging delivered via the Town’s unmanned aerial system (drone).

“While ultimately the term ‘swim at our own risk’ may apply, the Town is consistently working to provide beachgoers with adequate information, to help educate and empower them to determine their own acceptable risk level,” said a statement from the town of Oak Island.

Ocean Isle Beach

Beach Patrol? Retired police officers patrol the beach strand.

Water rescue? Yes, through Ocean Isle Beach Fire Department.

Flag system? No

Signage? Yes

Flotation? No

“There is some liability there and it does cost a lot of money. Of course you can’t put a price on a life, but we don’t have a history of a lot of drownings either because of the gentleness of our slope and typically the gentleness of the ocean,” said Ocean Isle Beach Mayor Debbie Smith.

Smith says employing a lifeguard force large enough to adequately cover the town’s six and a half miles of beach would be a challenge, so they have chosen to do other things in place of a lifeguard program.

The town has emergency vehicle beach accesses on both ends of the strand and in the middle as well, allowing them to respond to emergencies. Oceanfront properties on the island are required to have their street address on the ocean side of the home, visible from the sand to allow beachgoers to know their location should they need to call 911.

The town also provides educational materials on rip currents on its social media channels.

Sunset Beach

Beach Patrol? Beach patrol team monitors strand with UTV. Many staff have EMS and rescue training in addition to mandated CPR and first aid training.

Water rescue? Yes, through Sunset Beach Fire Department.

Flag system? Yes.

Flotation? Yes.

Signage? Yes.

The chief agrees the call to not add lifeguards to the strand comes down to concerns about cost, staffing, and how the town wants to structure its safety program.

“As far as adding lifeguards stands to Sunset Beach, it’s a conversation we may look into in the future, but the program we have right now is robust — it has rescuers on the strand, it has beach patrol staff doing a lot of different things and it’s working for us,” said Sunset Beach Fire Chief Paul Hasenmeier.

In the last few years alone, the town has continued to develop their beach patrol program, adding a deputy chief of beach patrol to oversee the program and adding seasonal employees to staff several utility vehicles. The flag warning system kicked off two years ago and throwable life rings were added to each beach access in 2019.

Beach patrol workers are equipped with fliers, cozies and challenge coins to share information about rip currents and proactively answer the community’s questions.

There’s no guarantee that having lifeguards would have saved the life of victims like Allen Whitley, but the people who were there that day can only hope for more protections in the future.

“For the next family, it’s something they need,” added Dalton.

At this time, none of the municipalities I spoke with for this story are aware of any discussions about adding lifeguards to the strand.

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