Beach Patrol Letter Helps Delay Night Swimming Ban Vote

OCEAN CITY – After dipping their proverbial toes in the water to consider a ban on night swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, City Council seemed to get a case of cold feet on Monday night.

City Council backed off on its previous action to move forward with the first reading of Ordinance 2009-3, which would prohibit swimming in the Atlantic Ocean post 9 pm, 365 days a year, voting rather to table the motion until a later date.

“This was a motion I made in response to the fire chief’s men and EMS personnel having to go into the water at night to save people, said Councilman Jim Hall; “We got a letter from (Beach Patrol Captain) Butch Arbin and he brought up some very good points.  So what I would like to do is table this again and get together with Butch, the Beach Patrol, and the Fire Department and get in a room and go over this.  I do think we’re on the right page, and I think we have good intentions here, but this needs more thought.”

Council agreed with Hall’s cautiousness and voted 5-1 (with Council President Joe Mitrecic in opposition and Mary Knight absent) to put a hold on the ordinance that would define when it is lawful to swim in the ocean.

Mitrecic seemed to take umbrage with some of the things stated in Arbin’s letter, and in addressing Hall’s comments, showed that he thinks an ordinance is necessary.

“I don’t disagree with you but I don’t necessarily agree with you, Jim.  We have always encouraged people to swim in the ocean when the lifeguards are on duty.  My concern with Butch’s letter is that he basically says that anytime the lifeguards aren’t on duty, the ocean should be closed. That’s kind of the inference that I got from it”, said Mitrecic.

The Council President went on to say that Arbin’s idea to move the ban to a time frame that would be closer to when the lifeguards leave the beaches, which is anywhere from 5:30-5:45 PM, could effect other members of the community.

“To move the ban back to an even earlier time would be a disservice to the surfers and other people who use the ocean after five when they get off of work,” Mitrecic said.

Arbin’s lengthy letter to Mayor and City Council, which was dated January 16, stated that passing an ordinance that would prohibit swimming in the ocean from 9pm-5am the following day would be counterproductive to message that the Beach Patrol has been trying to instill in the minds of swimmers for years.

“With the support of the town of Ocean City, we have worked hard to spread the message that it is unsafe to enter the ocean when the lifeguards are off duty”; said Arbin in his letter, “We have done this through our ‘stay in the sand until the lifeguard is in the stand’ campaign.”

Arbin went on to say that this message is a major part of what the Beach Patrol preaches and advertises on the back of the lifeguard stands, electronic marquees, and safety brochures, and he stated that this ordinance could be misleading to beach goers.

“If the town makes it illegal to swim in the ocean only after 9 pm, this will send a message that the town really thinks that it’s only dangerous to swim in the ocean after dark.  This mixed message poses several problems. Most importantly, this message by its very existence, detracts from, and lessens the more important message that we’ve been trying to drive home for years,” he said.

Councilwoman Margaret Pillas agreed with the Captain’s notion of a sole message for swimmers.

“I like the idea of having a single focus message to send out there for the education in order to promote prevention and it would be less confusing for swimmers.  I think that really warrants taking a look at,” she said.

Arbin’s letter went on to site statistics that the last four fatalities from drowning in the past four years have occurred “well outside the parameters of the proposed swimming ban”, including one death between 9 am and 10 am, and 3 between 5:45 and 6:30 pm.

“It is not darkness that makes swimming during unguarded hours dangerous for rescuers and victims. Darkness and fog may complicate rescues, but it is rip currents and heavy surf that cause the problem in the first place”, said Arbin.

The Beach Patrol Captain’s letter claimed that his stance was not to ban swimming or close the beach after lifeguards left the beach for the day, saying that it is “highly unlikely anyone would seriously consider that”, but he hoped in his letter that a single message would be used and any proposal would not only be posted and advertised, but also enforced.

Still, President Joe Mitrecic feels that something needs to be done saying “if we stop one person from going into the ocean after a night of entertainment and their judgment is impaired, I think it’s worth an ordinance.”

In the end, Arbin’s letter struck a chord with the Council and the issue will remain unresolved for now, but even Mitrecic said that there was no shame in putting on the brakes and being thorough despite his opposition to table the ordinance.

“There is nothing wrong with stepping back and re-evaluating the issue,” he said.