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From The Past…..Rip Tides…Lifeguards…In 2007…BSO

‘Drownings Send a Signal: Beach Outings Carry Risk
Broward’s beaches are beautiful, but they have many hidden dangers lurking along and beneath the water
By Jerry Berrios
[email protected]

January 7, 2007

Broward’s beaches are marketed to tourists around the world as a fun destination, but two recent drownings illustrate hidden dangers that sometimes lurk beneath the surface.

Rip currents, broiling sun rays and Portuguese man-of-war are only some of the elements that can make the beach treacherous.

If beachgoers choose to swim in areas without lifeguards, the chance of something going wrong increases.

”The ocean is dangerous,” said John Frailey, a battalion chief with Broward Sheriff’s Office Division of Fire Rescue. “You have a lot of unpredicable factors.”

Two men who drowned last week swam off private beaches in Fort Lauderdale. In unguarded areas, beachgoers swim at their own risk.

Fort Lauderdale can do little when it comes to posting lifeguards on private property, according to city leaders who discussed the drownings at a meeting Thursday.

”We’re somewhat restrained by what we can do,” said Commissioner Christine Teel, whose district includes some of the beach areas without lifeguards.

Many area residents feel beachgoers should know that they swim at their own risk, and that it’s impossible for the city to be responsible for everyone’s behavior, Teel said. Still, one Fort Lauderdale property is facing a lawsuit from the widow of a tourist who drowned.

Pam O’Donnell, whose husband, Martin, drowned off the private beach of Fort Lauderdale’s Ramada Plaza Beach Resort in 2002, wants hotels to warn guests about the water’s hidden dangers.

Martin O’Donnell, 46, on vacation from Great Britain with his wife and daughter, got caught in a deadly rip current near the resort, at 4060 Galt Ocean Dr. There were no warning signs at the resort, his widow said.

”No flags, no signs, no nothing,” said St. Petersburg attorney Dan Leeper, who’s representing Pam O’Donnell. “No emergency phone on the beach, no plan for how to deal with ocean emergencies.”

O’Donnell has sued the Ramada chain and the resort, charging negligence. A trial is scheduled to start April 9.

Rip currents cause more than 100 deaths a year, according to the United States Lifesaving Association. They are not the only problem along the beaches.

It’s also the season for the Portuguese man-of-war, whose sting is similar to that of a bee, said Breck Ballou, captain of the ocean rescue division of the Fort Lauderdale Fire Department.

”Just like a bee, if you are allergic to them, it can be dangerous,” Ballou said.

The man-of-war can appear at any time, blown into the area by easterly, onshore winds, Ballou said.

If beachgoers get stung, lifeguards will take the man-of-war’s tentacle off, if it is still attached, and then apply an astringent to the affected area, Ballou said.

Purple flags — which warn beachgoers about the presence of the man-of-war — were expected to continue flying throughout the weekend at Fort Lauderdale beach because of easterly winds, Ballou said.

No state or local agency oversees beach safety. Coastal communities decide individually whether to station lifeguards on public beaches. Shoreline hotels and resorts also make their own lifeguarding decisions.

Florida should establish a uniform warning system for beachgoers, said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.

That would give beachgoers a clear message ”whether they are a resident or a visitor — that there is information you must be aware of,” Grossman said. “You only have to learn it once.”

Some condos and hotels are nervous about distributing beach safety information because they don’t want to be liable for drowning deaths, Grossman said.

”It’s potential liability that keeps everyone from embracing this responsibility,” she said.

BSO Fire Rescue distributes fliers to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea hotels showing swimmers how to escape rip currents.

In that town, leaders have discussed installing emergency telephones and warning systems because the beach area has no lifeguards.

”This time of year is rip-current season,” said BSO Fire Rescue’s Frailey. “That’s when we get the northeastern winds coming in.”

In Hollywood, 21 lifeguard towers and eight first-aid stations dot the beach. Flags fly in those locations alerting beachgoers to the water conditions — whether it’s choppy, or windy and whether sharks are nearby.

Most beach visitors plunge into the ocean without realizing it is much different from other bodies of water, said Matt Phillips, spokesman for Hollywood Fire Rescue. “

”Many of our visitors do not have any ocean swimming experience,” he said. “They come from swimming pools and lakes.”

Fort Lauderdale may be adding five more lifeguard towers to its 15 that already dot its shoreline. City administrators are seeking information to help them decide whether the city or a contractor should staff the towers.

Ballou advises tourists and residents to swim near lifeguards, read the warning signs and ask lifeguards any questions. He also recommends that children not swim alone.

”It’s smart to swim in front of a lifeguard,” Ballou said. “We are there for the public. We are there to assist.”

Miami Herald staff writer Erika Bolstad contributed to this report.

What flag colors mean

Green: Good to excellent water conditions

Yellow: Moderate water conditions

Red: Extremely hazardous

Blue: Dangerous marine life such as jellyfish and Portuguese men-of-war

Orange: Rip currents with easterly onshore winds

Black: Open surfing or expanded surfing area


Double red flags: Water closed to public (mainly because of lightning and sharks)

Single red flag: High hazard, high surf and/or strong currents

Yellow: Moderate surf and/or currents

Green: Low hazard, calm conditions; use caution

Purple: Dangerous marine life (mainly men-of-war)’

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