PANAMA CITY BEACH — With the Gulf of Mexico the driving force behind local tourism, Daryl Paul says he believes lifeguards play a vital role in the Beach's success.
As beach safety director for Panama City Beach Fire Rescue, Paul said his lifeguards so far this year have rescued about 220 beachgoers from drowning. They also have made about 2,300 public public assists, where they enter the water to prevent a rescue; as well as more than 970,000 public contacts, where they talk to beachgoers about how to stay safe at the beach.
PCB's lifeguard season runs from the beginning of April until the end of September. During that time, guards are stationed throughout the day in towers on each side of the Russell-Fields Pier. They also patrol other areas of the city's coast on ATVs and jet-skis.
"The beach, the coastline, is what's bringing all of our tourism to Panama City Beach and Bay County," Paul said. "Everybody's coming here to get them a beach chair and a little spot on the world's most beautiful beaches, and rip currents are a real danger.
"Some rip currents are easier to spot than others, and that's why you need somebody on the shoreline to advise people."
Rip currents are fast moving currents created by deep channels in surrounding sandbars. These channels often run perpendicular to the shoreline and cause water to funnel faster out into deeper waters of the Gulf. Rips can vary in strength, depending on how developed the channels are, and they can sometimes be identified from shore where there is a gap in the wave break — areas where the white caps of the breaks are less noticeable.
Paul noted one of the biggest challenges that faced his lifeguards this season was keeping beachgoers out of the Gulf under double red flags, when the water is closed under penalty of $500 fines because extremely dangerous rip currents are present.
He believes the issue mostly stems from defiant beachgoers set on swimming no matter what, not lifeguards failing to educate the public on the local law.
"You can put a sign, you could put a flag, you could do anything you can," Paul said. "To me, I think if you put a fence out there, it's not going to keep people from getting into the water. It just further proves that you need to have a trained professional, a trained lifeguard who is there."
Nine people drowned in Bay County this year, with six happening off the coast of Panama City Beach, and three happened on unincorporated Bay County beaches outside the city limits. Two of the drownings occurred under single red flags, and seven occurred under double red flags. All happened between June and July.
The victims of every local drowning this year were tourists who died after being caught in a rip current.
"People usually clamor on to (that) there was nine drownings, but they don't really see everything else that we've done," Paul said. "They were nine drownings, but there were 218 rescues and 2,338 public assists. ... I understand even one drowning is too much, but all the other information, I believe, is just as critical.
"Our guards are definitely out there working it. They're on the front line."
Though lifeguards will no longer be stationed at the city pier starting Oct. 1, Paul said his department currently has seven full-time lifeguards who will continue to patrol the coast throughout the off season.
He also said one of his goals for 2024 is to begin the lifeguard season sooner in the year, since the tourism industry in Panama City Beach continues to boom, bringing more and more tourists to the area.
"Panama City Beach has really changed since I was a kid growing up here," Paul said. "It's more of a year-round destination, and so spring breakers are coming down a lot sooner, they're staying longer. ... Next year will be a little different. I'm going to push to try and be out there a little earlier.
"We'll be ready for sure."
This article originally appeared on The News Herald: Panama City Beach lifeguards rescue 220, assist 2,300 so far in 2023