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County puts muscle behind red flag warnings

David Adlerstein
The Apalachicola Times

After two drownings this summer, including one last week in which a St. George Island first responder perished while trying to rescue floundering swimmers, county commissioners acted swiftly Tuesday morning to put teeth in its red flag warnings.

After honoring the heroism of the late Brian Smith (see related story), commissioners unanimously approved an ordinance, to go into effect immediately, that will levy a strict penalty if a swimmer fails to comply with a sheriff deputy’s order to leave the water of the Gulf of Mexico or St. George Sound, during a double red flag water closure.

More:Saluting a fallen hero

A first offense will first receive a verbal warning, and then a second offense can be instituted “following a reasonable opportunity to comply with the verbal warning.”

A second offense makes the swimmer subject to a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of no more than $500, or a sentence of not more than 60 days in jail, or both. All subsequent offenses are considered second-degree misdemeanors.

As it stands now, the ordinance, which County Attorney Michael Shuler plans to file with the state later this week, has a single exception. It does not apply to persons attached by a leash to a surfboard, which is defined as “a fiberglass, epoxy, closed-cell neoprene or closed cell Styrofoam instrument with one or more fins or skegs attached to or inserted through the bottom.”

This includes all windsurf boards and sailboards, but does not include rubber rafts, floats, belly boards, skim boards or boogie boards.

“I’m good with it,” said Sheriff A.J. Smith. “It is a flotation device.”

A list of the what the beach warning flags mean

Smith had pushed for the ordinance, similar to one recently enacted on Panama City Beach. He told commissioners that deputies realized, when they went to rescue a swimmer at Bob Sikes Cut on the morning of Aug. 25, that they lacked the legal authority to cite the swimmer for his actions.

“Anybody with common sense should have known going out in the Cut on a day like that was not a smart thing to do,” Smith said.

Later that afternoon, in the waters off 10th and 11th Street East on the island, Brian Smith had gone out in the water to rescue a swimmer and child who were having difficulty with a strong undertow. The sheriff said even Dan Fortunas, a strong swimmer who was among the first on the scene, had difficulty reaching the stranded swimmers.

“The guy was saved after he had drifted so far out nobody could reach him,” said the sheriff. “So the jet ski picked him up.”

While the commissioners were unanimous in support of the legislation, the discussion turned to how best to inform the public that double red flags are a mandate that you must not enter the water.

“I’ve had a lot of calls,” said the sheriff, noting that he’s been in talks with the St. George Island Civic Club. “We have a shortage of beach flags and that may be an issue we have to address as well.”

He said the plan now, for the five-mile-long beach, is to place them every half-mile.

“We’re going to have to have flags so when we order people out of the water there are flags visible on the beach,” he said.

“People understand we have a flag system,” Smith said. “(With this law) it will taper off. At least we’ll have a way to deal with them. Once we put it in place and warn people, we’ll take action and make believers out of them.”

The sheriff said a plan will have to be drawn up as to who will put out the double red flags when conditions call for them.

“They could change daily,” he said. “You can start out in the morning (without them) and by end of day have a double red. Most of the time it’s pretty consistent but it could change over the course of the day.”

He said vacation rentals companies have worked to get the word out about flag warnings, but the new law will have to be emphasized even more, especially to those not staying overnight. One suggestion has been to also put QR codes on the main signs, so the information can be read by a smartphone.

“A lot of beach houses have magnets on refrigerators that talk about this stuff,” said Smith. “But it could be a day tripper or it could be somebody without a phone.

“Maybe we’ll ask for volunteers to help us change the flags,” he said. “Getting the flags changed to me is not the big issue.”

Commissioner Ricky Jones, who chairs the Tourist Development Council, said he has asked TDC Director John Solomon to work on enhancing the beach access signage, including adding the QR codes.

“We’ve also had discussion about doing a phone app for the county,” Jones said.

County Coordinator Michael Morón said his assistant Cortni Bankston has discussed with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection a grant opportunity that could fund more flags.

Without exception, commissioners supported the ordinance, while acknowledging that education is also needed to discourage people from entering the water under challenging circumstances.

“People don’t need to lose their lives because somebody’s doing something they’re not supposed to do. That shouldn’t be.” said Chairman Noah Lockley.

 “You got a storm in the Gulf of Mexico ain’t nobody have no business in that water,” he said.

“There are visitors coming here that are not aware of the dangers,” said Smokey Parrish. “The locals are more aware of it. We have visitors from Kentucky or places that don’t have an ocean or a gulf and they are not raised around them.”

Lockley and Parrish wondered if an electronic flag system might be implemented, perhaps run by solar, to eliminate the need for manual changing of flags.

“When you’re depending on volunteers, they have good intentions but something could come up,” said Lockley.

“It’s probably a lot more expensive, but worth looking into,” said the sheriff. Morón said he would discuss the matter with emergency management.

The sheriff, who has demonstrated the ability to be a prolific fundraiser on behalf of local emergency needs, said he knows of people willing to donate money to help with the project.

He said he would station a deputy on the beach any time there are double red flag warnings, but added a caution.

“I don’t want to be in the water rescue business. That takes somebody with a high level of physical ability,” Smith said, commending the law enforcement personnel who went in the water during the incident that cost a first responder's life..

“We’re not trained in water rescue,” he said. “I’m happy to take on water rescue if you all want to fund it. (But with) jet skis and people trained to do it, it’s quite expensive.

“If we can keep them out of the water we don’t have to rescue them,” Smith said. “We don’t have that many double red flags days. This will be a huge deterrent.”