More than 40 people drowned in the Gulf waters off the Panhandle in the last three years. In response, the Bay County Fire Rescue Services is starting a program to train rescue swimmers.
Chief Fred Walker with the Thomas Drive Fire Department organized the training. He says this will only add to the rescue effort in Bay County.
"We had several instances last year where we had multiple victims in the water at the same time and a limited number of rescue swimmers," says Walker.
Fourteen people with the Thomas Drive and Panama City Beach Fire Department, along with the Panama City Beach Police, Beach and Surf Patrol are hitting the water this week for an intensive six-day training session.
Chief Walker says the focus for the Fire Department is to be a well-trained backup to the First Responders like the Beach Patrol.
"In many cases, they have to enter the water alone to try to affect a rescue swim, they have no backup, no support on the beach."
Chief Bob Majka says he saw the need last year as the beach piled up and red flags kept flying. He says the highly qualified training is done by Ocean Rescue Systems of Portland, Maine.
"They do training for the Coast Guard, as well as the Air Force, and they're here this week providing training to our personnel as well as beach in for and surf folks."
Chief Fred Walker wants to stress this is not a life guarding class, instead skills learned will be used to backup the rescue effort of First Responders.
"We're trying to provide a layered system that will put a rescue swimmer or multiple rescue swimmers and have a support system on the beach."
Everyone is learning skills now that will later be used to save a life.