OCEAN CITY — When it comes to public safety and patrolling the beach, Ocean City gets more bang for its buck than most neighboring resort communities with its lifeguards, but filling out the ranks late in the season continues to create some challenges.
Long-time Ocean City Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin on Monday presented his department’s requested budget for fiscal year 2017. The department’s budget request included a $2 per hour supplemental pay increase for those officers who return to work weekends late in the season after their full-time employment has ended and they have returned to their regular lives, many as students or educators.
Arbin said the department is successful each year in recruiting the number of qualified applicants to fill out the ranks, but each year faces the same challenges in covering the beach late in the season through the end of August and into September. It’s no secret the OCBP is made up largely of students, teachers and even college professors, but the extent to which the department relies on those who return to school each late summer was not fully known until the results of a study were release late last year as part of the latest attempt to illustrate the importance of a post-Labor Day school start in Maryland.
For example, starting at the top, Arbin is an educator in the Charles County public school system and two lieutenants are educators. Of the 12 OCBP sergeants currently on staff, eight are educators and two are college professors. There are 18 crew chiefs, of which eight are educators and one is a college professor. In terms of the 17 assistant crew chiefs, 10 are students.
While the education-drain on the OCBP is evident, particularly late in the season, the town still gets a considerable bang for its buck from the department, according to Arbin, who calculated the cost per mile of guarding Ocean City’s 10-mile stretch of beach at around $1,700 per mile.
“Our cost per mile is very low,” he said. “We do better than most. In Bethany Beach, the cost to guard a mile is double what it is here.”
Arbin said it’s not an easy apples-to-apples comparison because of the complexities of staffing and the varying sizes of the departments, but he used a total number of miles divided by the total number of guards on duty per day.
“We’re one of the most efficient beach patrols in the world comparing what we get and what we spend,” he said. “According to our estimates, we’re at around 49 or 50 cents to guard each person on the beach each day.”
Again, recruiting lifeguards is not typically a problem for the OCBP, but keeping the stands full and the beach guarded late in the season continues to create challenges. For example, during the first week of August last year, there were over 120 surf rescue technicians on the beach and that figure held fairly steady through mid-August. However, by Aug. 30, the number had dropped to around 40 and by Labor Day Monday, which was the latest it could be last year, the number dropped below 40.
“Getting people here early is not difficult,” said Arbin this week. “Keeping them here late is a challenge. When we finished last year, the stands were about a half a mile apart.”
When asked if the OCBP directs its recruiting efforts locally where potential candidates stay in the area for school and other employment, Arbin said the department does its best to maximize recruitment locally. He said about 85 percent of the Beach Patrol staff moves to the resort for the summer from other areas and most return late in the season for school.
“We recruit heavily in the local area, but we pay people for their ability to swim and run and it’s difficult to find enough applicants locally who can meet our rigorous standards,” he said. “We get about 15 percent from the local area, but we have to go outside all over Maryland and beyond to get the other 85 percent. We need to stay competitive. With many of our neighboring patrols, they live here and go back to their homes at the end of the day. Most of our people are seasonal.”
Getting the seasonal beach patrol officers to come back on weekends after they have returned to teaching or going to school as students continues to be challenging, which is why the department is seeking the supplemental $2 per hour pay hike in this year’s budget request for those who return to work weekends.
“For somebody that goes to school in Baltimore, for example, it might not be worth it to come back in September and work just 15 hours in a weekend,” he said. “That’s why we’re seeking that additional $2 per hour to make it a little more lucrative. Many of them no longer have their seasonal housing, so they have to find a place to stay and they have to eat while they’re here.”
While receptive to the concept, the council did not immediately approve the supplemental pay increase for returning lifeguards but promised to take it under advisement during budget deliberations.
“I’m not sure the $2 differential really solves the issue and I’d rather not got there,” said Councilman Dennis Dare. “I rather see our pay standard be more competitive across the board.”