CLEARWATER — Lifeguard supervisor Patrick Brafford scans the packed beach from Tower 3 at Clearwater Beach. About 15 feet offshore, a group of people are swimming with a small child. That makes Brafford nervous. There's no reason to take a child out that deep, Brafford thinks. A middle-age woman running toward children in the water catches his eye. It only takes a couple seconds to tell everything is fine, but still, it's unsettling. Rafts and other inflatables worry him, too. He runs through some quick checks: Does the raft appear to be there for fun or safety? How old is the person? Is he or she struggling at all?
This recent Saturday is a typical day for Brafford at Clearwater Beach, which has seen the number of visitors increase almost 25 percent in the past five years. That's why this year, the city increased lifeguard hours between March 1 and Labor Day by two hours, from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. instead of 4:30 p.m. During the rest of the year, lifeguard duty still ends at 4:30 p.m.
They've also added one more lifeguard to the daily roster — nine are on duty at all times, most for the full shift.
Clearwater Beach is the only beach in Pinellas County to offer year-round lifeguard service, and Brafford said he is always hiring. Right now, his team consists of about 36 lifeguards, including seven full-time, year-round employees.
Brafford, who has been in charge of the program since April 2011, said the boost in tourism has been noticeable and the increased hours and staffing were "definitely needed."
"We're always looking to make things more efficient," he said. "At this point in time in the summer, there's a lot of daylight and a lot of people left (after 4:30 p.m.)."
The influx of visitors has meant Brafford's team spends more time educating newcomers about ordinances, such as the bans on alcohol, pier jumping and surfing, he said.
In the past, the beach was busy mainly on the weekends, said Brent Armstrong, 59, who was a lifeguard from 1974 to 1979 and returned in 2012. Now, the beach is jam-packed year-round during the week, he said.
It's unclear whether the increase in visitors has resulted in increased incidents. According to data Clearwater officials submit to the U.S. Lifesaving Association, total water rescue numbers have fluctuated. The data also shows that since 1991, there have been nine drowning deaths when lifeguards were not on duty and zero when they were on duty. Brafford said the low numbers could be partially due to imperfect reporting in the past. However, he said it might also be because of the year-round lifeguard service.
"Death by drowning is considerably reduced when someone swims on a guarded beach and near a lifeguard during guarded hours," Brafford said.
Geri Lopez, Clearwater's director of economic development and housing, said the tourism boom has caused officials to talk about a bigger commitment in upkeep to the beach. The city already has installed new towers in 2011 and 2012, which are larger and taller, giving lifeguards better visibility. It also bought new beach vehicles.
Armstrong said he's glad to have the extra hours of coverage, but no matter the number of tourists or locals, the job remains the same: "Just make sure people have a safe experience at the beach."
Contact Taylor Goldenstein at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155. Follow @taygoldenstein.