Government can't do everything, but it can make public safety a priority. That's what the city of Clearwater did throughout the recession in keeping its lifeguards on Clearwater Beach. And it proved it again this summer by beefing up its lifeguard schedule in response to growing crowds at the beach. As they have for years, Clearwater officials are putting beachgoers' safety ahead of spending considerations.
Most public beaches in Pinellas County don't provide lifeguards anymore. They erect signs that tell beachgoers that they swim at their own risk.
But Clearwater, which has the county's busiest tourist beach, has always placed a high priority on having a year-round, professional lifeguard staff overseeing the most heavily used sections of Clearwater Beach. The beach patrol has 36 full- and part-time guards and an annual budget of almost half a million dollars.
Visits to Clearwater Beach have exploded with the end of the recession. For example, in 2009 Clearwater Beach had 767,494 visitors. Last year, the number rose to 954,900. And it appears that the 2014 number will be even bigger. New hotels are being built, new restaurants and shops are opening, and crowds flock to the sand every day, not just on weekends.
The city has responded by building taller lifeguard stations to give guards a better view of the crowded swimming areas.
And this year from spring through Labor Day, the hours that guards worked were extended an extra two hours every day, until 6:30 p.m. The guards train year-round, know CPR and all full-time guards are urged to get certified as emergency medical technicians.
The guards do a lot more than watch the water for swimmers in trouble, though that is their highest priority. They also assist swimmers who are stung by stingrays and jellyfish, are often first on the scene of medical emergencies, enforce beach rules, help reconnect lost children with their parents, educate visitors about issues such as rip currents, and act as goodwill ambassadors and vacation counselors to beach visitors. During 2013, the beach patrol recorded more than 37,000 "actions" by guards, including 43 water rescues and responding to almost 5,000 swimming zone violations. There is no doubt that lives have been saved because the guards were there.
Clearwater City Hall had to make a lot of cuts during the recession. It could have joined other beach cities and put out signs that said "No lifeguards. Swim at your own risk." Instead, it kept its beach patrol and now that the crowds are growing, so is the patrol's staff and hours. That is commendable dedication to public safety.