ATLANTIC BEACH — With multiple water rescues, including seven drowning deaths, reported in the county since April, the Atlantic Beach Fire Department knows the importance of having trained lifeguards ready to aid swimmers in distress.
That’s why the fire department, nine years ago, started a junior lifeguard camp to train youth, ages 9 to 17, in important water safety and rescue skills.
“We want to educate them in hopes they will be safer in the water and they can help spread that word to their friends,” Atlantic Beach Fire Chief Mike Simpson said Wednesday as he taught water safety and rescue techniques to more than 40 campers ranging in age from 9 to 12.
“Most of these kids return every year, and once they turn 18 they can come to work for us as lifeguards. We’ve had several of the kids graduate from the program and work for us.”
Chief Simpson said the fire department will offer the camp twice in July for ages 13 to 17, but both sessions are filled.
“We could run this camp every week in the summer and it would fill up,” he said. “We just don’t have the staff to do it.”
Capt. J. Scott Bell, who started the program with the late Atlantic Beach Fire Chief Adam Snyder, said the popular weeklong camp covers many of the same skills used by lifeguards. They include recognizing and escaping rip currents, victim recognition, victim rescue with flotation devices, jet skis or kayaks, and other safety tips related to ocean hazards and heat.
“Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in children, so anything we can do to prevent that is a plus,” Capt. Bell said. “The ocean is always the same, the only thing we can do is change our behaviors and adapt ourselves to safe practices and pass that on to our kids.”
Atlantic Beach lifeguard Meghan Jones, 20, a former junior lifeguard who now helps with the camp, said the camp was what inspired her to enter the profession.
“I think it’s the best job in the world,” she said. “I enjoy coming to work every day. My father was also a lifeguard on the Outer Banks. It’s a great way to help people.”
She admitted that two drowning deaths in Atlantic Beach earlier this year inspire her to remain vigilant as she monitors beach visitors.
“Unfortunately it’s part of the job and I think it always affects all of us,” she said. “It makes me even more passionate about the job so I can prevent more accidents from happening.”
Another motivating factor for her dedication to the job and the junior lifeguard camp is the death earlier this year of the camp’s founder, Chief Snyder, who died after a snow skiing accident in March.
“We were very close and he was like a father figure to me,” Ms. Jones said. “It’s difficult, but one of my motivations for doing my best. I know that it makes him proud. I think we’re all doing it in his honor.”
Many of the campers, like Caroline Dickinson, 12, of Morehead City, expressed an interest in becoming a lifeguard.
“This is my third year at the camp. I feel like it’s important to know how to do all of this stuff because we’re living at the beach. We also learn how to help other people,” Caroline said.
“If you’re going to live at the beach you need to know what to do, like if you get stuck in a rip current, you don’t fight it.”
Ms. Jones agreed that one of the most important skills ocean swimmers should know is how to recognize rip currents and how to swim out of them. The majority of rescues that have occurred in Atlantic Beach so far this year have involved swimmers getting caught in rip currents, according to Ms. Jones.
Rip currents are currents of water that run perpendicular to shorelines and are often strong enough to pull even the best swimmers out to sea.
Authorities recommend swimmers caught in rip currents swim parallel to the shore to get out of them. If that’s not possible, they recommend floating or treading water, while facing shore and shouting and waving for help.
One way to recognize rip currents is to look for a foam trail that goes backwards away from the shoreline. Look for changes in the flow or a darker color to the water.
Capt. Bell also offered a safety tip for visitors to the beach.
“If you’re not a strong swimmer, the ocean is not the best place to learn. If you don’t know how to swim in the ocean, use a flotation device. I’ve never had to do CPR on a person who had a flotation device,” Capt. Bell said.
Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.