CLEARWATER — After two water scooters collided a few months ago off Clearwater's sandy shores, 22-year-old beach guard Ryan Reyes raced into the water and stabilized the victim for more than 10 minutes before paramedics arrived.
Whenever there's a problem on Clearwater Beach, guards like Reyes are the first to respond. In the past year, they answered more than 13,600 calls, from rescuing drowning swimmers to assisting people nailed by stingrays.
Every day — no matter how cold, no matter how windy — the city's beach has a lifeguard on the job. It's the only beach in the Tampa Bay area that has such a year-round operation.
But now, with the city facing between $6-million and $10-million in budget cuts, Clearwater leaders are looking at eliminating the $700,000 a year operation, which includes salaries and equipment.
Critics say the proposal is dangerous. People all over the world visit Clearwater Beach, some of them specifically because of the safety the guards provide.
And they say the timing couldn't be worse with the recent opening of the city's newest tourist attraction — a $30.4-million winding limestone promenade called BeachWalk that is expected to draw even more people to the water.
"There's no way in the world they can cut that program — it's a health and safety issue, not a quality of life issue," said Sheila Cole, executive director of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce. "If we're going to advertise this as the premier beach destination, then it's our responsibility to keep our visitors safe."
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South Clearwater Beach's 1.3-mile shore that stretches south from the Palm Pavilion restaurant to a main jetty is one of the bay area's biggest destination points and generates more visitors than any beach in the area, according to local chamber officials. It also has more incidents in which first responders are needed on the scene, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis.
During the busy season, Pinellas County posts lifeguards at its beaches, including Fort De Soto and Sand Key. Hillsborough County has a handful of lifeguards and Tampa has 10 — all seasonal.
At the moment, Clearwater is the only locality looking to cut back on lifeguards.
"The City Council is still wrestling with this," Clearwater Vice Mayor George Cretekos said. "I know it's important not only to residents, but tourists, and we're going to think long and hard about it. But it may have to go unless we find some other savings."
The guards are well-trained professionals with emergency medical technician credentials, not whistle-twirling college kids.
Among their duties: making sure boats stay out of the 300-foot swimming area, finding missing children and kicking out rule-breakers who make the 16-foot leap off Pier 60. They break up fights and stop people from drinking alcohol on the beach.
A lifeguard once found a mentally challenged child who got lost collecting seashells and wandered halfway to Caladesi Island. Another rescued a 3-year-old who choked on a grape.
The city has eight full-time guards year-round and another six or seven part-timers during peak months. They train every morning and then take one of the eight posts from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The average salary is in the mid $30,000s, and a number of lifeguards have gone on to become firefighters since the program began in the 1970s.
"A lot of people have the mentality that we're just out there getting sunburned, and that's not what it's about," said 37-year-old Donovan Burns, who has worked as a beach guard since 1993.
Burns, who saved the child choking on the grape, said most adults can take care of themselves, but parents often forget to pay attention to their children.
He said even on calm days, if a wind kicks up he'll find himself swimming into the gulf, rescuing a scared child adrift on a floppy rubber float.
"It's essential we're out here because at any given time something can happen," said Burns, worried about his job because he has a mortgage to pay and daughter to support.
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City leaders have discussed scaling back the program to a seasonal operation like the county, which has a combined 27 lifeguards. But Clearwater's marine and aviation director Bill Morris said that could mean a drop in quality because many of the guards have turned their jobs into a career and would go elsewhere.
But others wonder if the beach really needs guards, either seasonal or at all.
For example, officials in St. Pete Beach and Treasure Island say they don't think there are enough incidents to warrant funding.
"Generally speaking, we've found that most people have good sense to know when dangerous conditions are out there," said Reid Silverboard, Treasure Island city manager, adding that the city has an active marine patrol unit on weekends and holidays.
St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield said his city posts "no lifeguards on duty, swim at own risk" signs. He said most beachgoers help each other if there's trouble.
"We haven't considered (adding beach guards)," he said. "I don't see anything that indicates we need them."
Clearwater City Council member John Doran said he needs more information before making a decision about eliminating the program, but acknowledges the city desperately needs to make cuts.
"The fact that other cities have chosen not to have them isn't definitive to me, but if other people feel they're not necessary, then we have to question why it is necessary for Clearwater Beach to have them," he said.
Tom Gill, a spokesman for the United States Lifesaving Association, said it's a lot cheaper to have a lifeguard on duty than to fight the inevitable wrongful death lawsuits if the beach is left unguarded.
"Obviously if they felt the need at one point to have them, then what changed?" Gill asked. "If it was a budgetary matter, you can imagine how that would look in court."
Beachgoers seem to enjoy having the guards around and even sit next to their posts for added security.
"They're lifesavers," said 50-year-old John Solu, a visiting Californian. "And as packed as this place gets, you need them."
By the numbers
Here's a look at some of the recorded incidents at Clearwater Beach in 2007, totaling 13,600.
Swim zone boundary line violations
639 Boats violating
the swim zone
785 Kicking out Pier 60 jumpers
Finding missing children
First aid responses