CLEARWATER — Red flags have flapped above the shoreline of Clearwater Beach, lifeguards say, for about two weeks. They signal strong currents and a high surf, though the swimmers don't seem to mind.
Out in the pummeling foam float the waterlogged masses, kids and adults alike, their laughs drowned out by the waves. Beachgoers have come to this 1.3-mile span of sand despite rough weather or red flags for decades, and every day, as shown by 30-year-old photographs, the men and women beneath the flags have kept watch.
The days of such a comprehensive watch may be over.
A proposed tightening of Clearwater's city budget would cut a third, or $241,000, of the funding for beach lifeguards. Full-time staff would shrink from eight to five, seasonal hires would be trimmed and shoreline north of Pier 60 would go unguarded during much of the off season between September and May, though busy times like school breaks still would be covered.
Clearwater's beach lifeguards aren't alone on the chopping block — more than 86 positions, including fire medics, police officers, parks and recreation workers and construction inspectors would lose their jobs with the City Council's approval in September of a $6 million reduction.
But beach statistics show last year was one of the lifeguards' busiest in a decade.
Guards, between questions from tourists and watching the shoreline, rescued 35 people and gave medical aid nearly 1,200 times.
"It's not good from a public safety standpoint," said Donovan Burns, the lifeguards' acting supervisor since head lifeguard Joe Lain retired in May. "If you're in an unguarded area, you're on your own."
Parks and Recreation director Kevin Dunbar said beachgoers would see little difference after the cuts. The proposed unguarded area north of Pier 60, with less beach parking and more private developments, is significantly less popular than the main area, which still would have guards every day from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
"The theme of the budget is consolidation," Dunbar said. "That budget includes everything we'd need to successfully run the operation."
But B. Chris Brewster, president of the United States Lifesaving Association, a professional nonprofit organization of beach lifeguards, is not so sure.
Lifeguard staffing across the country has, for the most part, increased as beaches gain attendance, he said. Shrinking staff, especially at the level the city proposes, would be a step backward for public safety, he said.
"I haven't heard of a place where they're cutting back a third," Brewster said. "That sounds rather draconian."
After the cuts, the remaining full-time guards, who earn about $27,000 a year, will continue monitoring all water and medical emergencies on the beach.
The seasonal ranks, expanded with students, schoolteachers and firefighters, would be hired during times like spring break and the busy summer months.
Working with less help obviously isn't the best arrangement, Burns said. But it could be worse: lifeguards at Pinellas County's Fort De Soto Park faced extinction until the county decided this month not to cut them.
"As long as I pay my bills and the public's safe," said Burns, looking out at clouds gathering above the surf. "As long as they're in our area, at least."
Drew Harwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.