EMERALD ISLE — The town’s new junior lifeguard training program – designed to educate children about beach safety and bolster future lifeguard recruitment – will begin with two four-day sessions in July.

According to Capt. Bill Mathias of the town fire department, which runs the lifeguard program, the new program is a joint venture of his department, which is headed by Chief Bill Walker, and the town parks and recreation department, headed by Alesia Sanderson.

The sessions will be Monday-Thursday, July 15-18 and July 22-25.

The first session is for ages 9 through 12 and the second is for ages 13-17. All training will take place between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. at the Eastern Ocean Regional Access.

Each session will be limited to 25 participants, and those who wish to get the training can sign up at the parks and recreation department or online at emeraldisle-nc.org/Data/Sites/1/media/news-events-images/jr-lifeguard-registration-form-update.pdf.

Capt. Mathias said Friday the town is responding to public interest in improving beach safety in the wake of four rip current-related drownings off the town’s strand this year.

“The training will be by our fire department personnel and our town lifeguards,” Capt. Mathias said. “It will teach ocean safety and valuable lifesaving skills.”

Younger students will learn personal safety. In addition, the department hopes training might spark a desire to become lifeguards once the children approach the minimum age, 18.

For the older group, the same holds true, but Capt. Mathias said the town hopes some, especially the 17-year-olds, might want to be lifeguards as early as next summer.

In addition, he said, “Some of them will be going off to college this summer, and since most colleges require freshmen to live on campus, they’ll have roommates.

“The idea is that some of those who go through the training this year will enjoy it, want to be lifeguards and will spread the word to their roommates, or maybe to people they meet at the gym or other places,” he said.

Recruitment of lifeguards is hard, Capt. Mathias added, and there’s tough competition for them, not just locally, but also from other North Carolina beach towns and elsewhere.

Atlantic Beach already has a junior lifeguard program.

Capt. Mathias said the town always urges its lifeguards to recruit others, because there are never enough applications. Some of those who apply aren’t qualified or can’t meet the most basic requirement, which is to be able to swim 550 meters – almost half a mile – in the ocean in under 10 minutes.

All of the lifeguards take a strenuous 74-hour training course under standards from the U.S. Lifesaving Association before starting.

Another major factor in lifeguard recruitment is housing, according to Capt. Mathias. The town has tried to get residents to sponsor lifeguards, but only had two takers this year.

That’s another reason to give the training to local youth, when they come home from college, they generally don’t need housing.

The town, Capt. Mathias said, is also exploring the possibility of creating some dorm-type housing for lifeguards in town-owned facilities.

“Some of these lifeguards get locked into jobs as early as January and February,” he said. “Having places for them to stay would be a big help.”

However it can be done, Capt. Mathias said, “the town wants to expand the pool” of potential lifeguards.

“The more who have the knowledge and the skills, the better,” he said.

The town would like to offer more sessions, but won’t be able to do so this year.

“It’s a pilot program,” he said, and if successful, could start earlier next year. Sessions later, in August, are difficult, because many of the lifeguards who will be doing some of the training will be heading back to college and “we need those who are left to be able to concentrate” on lifesaving.

The town’s lifeguard program generally runs from mid-May to Labor Day.

Through 2017, the town had a lifeguard at the EORA and at the Western Ocean Regional Access, both on elevated stands, and three other lifeguards on the beach, roving the entire strand on vehicles, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.

Last year, in the wake of the drownings of two Goldsboro teens in June 2017, the town added one more rover, for a total of four to augments those on the stands.

Altogether this year, there are 16, including supervisors, on staff. They are paid with money raised from weekend and holiday parking fees at the town’s two major beach accesses.

Meanwhile, Police Chief Bill Walker, who has beach patrol officers talking to people on the strand, said beachgoers have been paying a little more attention to red flags, which urge, but do not require, people to stay out of the ocean.

The town has long had flags at the beach accesses, including the numerous small ones, but recently added 17 new poles that fly beach-condition flags on the strand itself.

There have been many red-flag days recently, but the town this year has not flown its new double-red flags, which ban swimming expect by surfers and others with flotation devices. Swimming was banned for one day last summer.

The chief thinks the new flags on the beach have helped some because they are spread out and visible from anywhere along the 13-mile strand.

He said Friday there are still some who aren’t heeding the flags and enter the ocean when the red flags are flying, however.

“I think the new flags have probably helped, but so have our continuing efforts to educate people and the news reports” about beach safety in general and about the drownings, he said.

The town continues to look at a program to more closely work with the many surfers who frequent the beach and ocean. Officials realize and are grateful surfers rescue more struggling swimmers than town personnel, often before emergency personnel arrive on the scene, and the fire department wants to formalize that cooperation and incentivize it.

Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.

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