Panhandle lifeguards say that Walton County and other Panhandle communities have made good strides to hire lifeguards and raise tourists' awareness since the 20/20 broadcast, though they remain concerned about the lack of lifeguards at dozens other public beaches across the state, including beaches at 38 state parks.
"This is our backyard and we need to protect it. We're inviting guests and friends and families to come see us here and enjoy it, and we have to keep an eye on them," said Bill Soltz, a certified lifeguard and USLA advisor in Pensacola. "You wouldn't have a town without a police force or a fire department to protect against those incidents, I don't see why you would have a beach with open water and not protect the people utilizing that."
In South Florida, the small beach town of Lauderdale by the Sea is the latest beach community to draw attention for the lack of lifeguards on its beaches.
Located between Ft. Lauderdale and Pompano Beach, the town's two mile stretch of beach was the site of four drownings and two near-deaths due to rip currents in 2008.
Members of the US Lifesaving Association presented lifeguard protection proposals to the town government last year, but officials said they could not afford to pay for the estimated $1.5 million plan that would include hiring of full-time lifeguards for its beach. Since the drownings, the town has used the volunteer fire department to patrol its beaches and installed poles with lifesaver rings to help protect swimmers.
Grayton Beach, the state park where LaMotte drowned, continues to remain unguarded, though lifeguards at the neighboring county beach have reportedly made rescues there. Kirstin Lock, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said that the parks service has posted signage along Grayton Beach warning visitors of potential rip current dangers. She said the state parks use a beach flag warning system to inform beachgoers of hazardous currents.
Lifeguards insist that the safest option for inexperienced ocean swimmers is to swim at a beach with lifeguards. For beachgoers who find themselves caught in a rip current, they offer these potentially life-saving tips:
• Remain calm.
• Don't try to swim against the current.
• Try to swimming parallel to the shoreline to get out of the current.
• When out of the current, swim at an angle away from the current, towards the shore.
• If you are unable to swim out of the current, float or calmly tread water.