Guarding the Beach

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From mid-March to September lifeguards patrol portions of South Walton’s 26 miles of beach.

With 10 staffed lifeguard towers, beach-goers are educated about the flag system, and kept safe from rip currents and drownings.

"We have a staff of 34 guards; all of them are USLA trained. They all go through 40 hours of USLA open water certification training, they all go through 40 hours of emergency medical training, if they don't already have EMT or above,” said Gary Wise, Beach Safety Director.

But lifeguard stands up and down the beach are not something you'll find in Bay County.

Instead, Bay County and Panama City Beach officials rely on roving beach patrols to answer distress calls for the majority of the beach.

The City of Panama City Beach pays to have one portion of the beach guarded near the City Pier, April through September.

It's funded through the City's Parks and Recreation Department.

And in March, Bay County Commissioners debated a new lifeguard program, but it got shot down by commissioners who came to an impasse over liability and funding concerns.

By comparison, just one county over, Walton County officials say they found a way to fund lifeguards, using Tourist Development Council dollars.

"It was decided that with a product that is your tourism, that is your economy, what can we do that our consumers know that this is a great beach to go to,” said Jon Ervin, of the Walton County TDC. “It was decided back in 2006 when it was determined a beach safety program with lifeguards was a necessity."

And they say it’s working.

Walton TDC officials say out of their total budget, only four or five percent is taken out to fund lifeguards, and they say its money well spent.

"When again your economy is based on the beach, you do whatever you can to make sure it is thought of as the best product available,” said Ervin.

As for Bay County, they told News Channel 7 they do not want to comment at this time about lifeguards.

It’s uncertain if and when it will come up again, at future meetings.