Captain Weighs In On Why OC Does Not Use Flag System

Captain Weighs In On Why OC Does Not Use Flag System

OCEAN CITY – While conflicting stories about the drowning death of a young girl near the Jetty rocks at the Inlet last weekend continue to shroud the tragedy in a mysterious veil, officials locally are left to ponder steps to avoid situations like this in the future.

Ocean City Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin was quick  to point out how short-staffed his team was this past weekend, pointing to 42 lifeguards on the stands, rather than the usual 90 during peak summer months.

“Conditions were certainly rough and to this day, I’m still not sure what happened to that little girl,” said Arbin. “What I do know is that at 5:30 p.m. our team cleared the beach and there was no one in the water.”

Historically, most drownings occur when lifeguards are not on duty, and even though those numbers have gone down significantly in the past few years, according to Arbin, “one is still too many.”

Yet, these unfortunate tragedies have some wondering if more signage would help make people think twice before entering the ocean when it’s unusually rough, or stay out of the water entirely when lifeguards have gone home for the day.

Just a few miles south, on Assateague Island, the International Lifesaving Federation flag system is used to help lifeguards warn swimmers and beachgoers to take precautions when the surf is rough.

“This flag system is used all over the world,” said Jeff Clark, chief lifeguard for both the Maryland and Virginia sides of Assateague Island National Seashore. “It provides a symmetry in the messaging and the warnings so when people come here from all over the world, they have a sense of what the flags mean.”

Clark continued that Assateague used to have its own flag system, but adopted the international system in the early 2000’s to add that aforementioned symmetry.

The State of Florida is one of the only states in the country to have a law on the books sanctioning beaches to have those flags flying for beachgoers.

“Even with the flags, there are no guarantees that people will abide by them,” says Clark, “but we have found that they are quite effective and help our lifeguards convey that message to the people.”

Arbin says the difference with Assateague is that if they are short on lifeguards, they just guard a smaller portion of the beach, where Ocean City always has 10 miles of beach to guard from Memorial Day weekend in late May to Sunfest weekend in late September.

“We have come so far in educating people to swim only when lifeguards are on duty, and to talk to the lifeguards before they get in the water about the conditions,” said Arbin, “I just don’t know if any additional signs or flags would help us in Ocean City. People know they shouldn’t swim with no lifeguards on the stand and that they shouldn’t run in the highway, but some people unfortunately do both of those things.”

Proponents of the flag system say the flags drastically help with a proactive approach to beach safety, and coupled with proper basic lifesaving and advanced ocean training, can be a very helpful tool on crowded beaches.

Yet, Clark concedes it’s a tough thing to quantify.

“It’s hard to tell what impact the flags have because their entire focus is so proactive and preventive,” he said. “I can’t say how much they help, but I know they do.”

Clark estimates the flag systems used on both sides of Assateague Island National Seashore only cost a few hundred dollars annually.

“The OCBP very much believes in prevention before intervention,” said Arbin. “The most important thing for any lifeguard is that ability to be able to scan the water and be able to decipher between someone in distress and someone that is just waving back to someone on the beach.”

Arbin also revealed that a teenage boy was saved around 8 a.m. last Sunday by a lifeguard who was just passing by. He says it reiterates the real challenge that goes beyond the question of “flags or no flags.”

“That young man was in the surf long before our guards were on duty,” said Arbin. “If someone is going to get in the water when there is no guard in the stand, I don’t think a flag or a sign is going to stop them. If our surf rescue technician hadn’t been passing by, we would have had three drownings last weekend.”

About The Author: Bryan Russo

Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.