Flag system

EMERALD ISLE — Town officials are working on a number of new beach safety initiatives, including a more visible system of ocean-condition flags on the strand.

Bruce Norman, a captain in the fire department, which oversees the town’s lifeguards, made the announcement during the town board of commissioners’ monthly session Tuesday night in the meeting room beside the police station on the north side of Highway 58.

The town currently flies the flags – red to urge people to stay out of the ocean, yellow for normal conditions that still require caution and double-red to ban swimming except for those with flotation devices – at large and small beach accesses.

But they’re not actually on the beach, and Capt. Norman and others have said some beachgoers have reported they don’t see the flags. Just as big a problem, he added Tuesday night, is that it takes the town as long as six hours to change the flags when ocean conditions change.

As a result, Fire Chief Bill Walker said Wednesday, the town has installed 17 new flag poles on the beach, each about 20 feet high.

“You should be able to see at least one of them from almost anywhere you are on the beach,” Capt. Norman said during the meeting, “and we should be able to change them all in about an hour.”

According to Chief Walker, the new flags and poles are at Station Street Park, the vehicle access at The Point, the Channel Drive access, Point Emerald Villas access, Land’s End Clubhouse access, Spinnaker’s Reach access, Doe Drive vehicle ramp access, Sound of the Sea access, Bogue Inlet Pier, the Black Skimmer Drive vehicle access ramp, Bluewater Drive access, Summer Place access, Cedar Street access, Hubert Street access, East End Park, the 16th Street access and the 3rd Street access.

In addition, the department is starting a junior lifeguard program, in which the paid town lifeguards, mostly college students, will train younger workers, hopefully town residents. It’s still in the works, but should start this summer.

Finally, according to Capt. Norman, the town is seeking to work more closely with the surfers who frequent the beach through a new program.

Surfers, he said, rescue far more struggling swimmers than town personnel, often before emergency personnel arrive on the scene.

What the town wants to do is in some way formalize the cooperation so the surfers know what the town does and vice versa. For example, Chief Walker said Wednesday, those surfers who help should know the international sign for “everything is OK” is to tap your head, while the sign for “more assistance needed” is to wave your arms.

The idea is also to give the surfers even more incentive to keep providing the invaluable service, Chief Walker said.

“We appreciate what they do, and we want to give them some incentive, maybe a parking pass or something,” he said.

The town is still trying to put the program together, he said, as the department has been waiting for the arrival of new Town Manager Matt Zapp, who started work Wednesday. Incentive ideas need to go through him for approval.

At the meeting Tuesday night, Fire Department Capt. Bill Mathias said those initiatives plus others, such as getting more rescue boards to carry on the ATVs that cruise the beach, signify the town is “constantly trying to get better.”

He thanked residents and visitors for their involvement and suggestion, and urged them to stay involved.

The suggestions come in the wake of the drowning of four people caught in rip currents off the town’s 13-mile-long beach since April, all before the lifeguards started work May 22.

During the meeting Tuesday, in what has become a town tradition, Capt. Mathias named all of the lifeguards and introduced all who were there to the audience.

All, he said, have taken 74-plus hours of training under the U.S. Lifesaving Association standards, as each lifeguard must do each year. A key standard is all must be able to swim 550 meters – nearly a half-mile – in the ocean in less than 10 minutes.

“We have a lot of very strong swimmers this year,” Capt. Mathias said, including one who did the 550-meter swim in about six minutes. All of them were under nine minutes.

The lifeguard supervisors are Mackenzie McClarney and Ben Jackson. The other lifeguards are Jensynne East, Jessica Hasteadt, Hanna Niebel, Ryan Taylor, Kelsey Lyon, Rachael Javurek, Courtney Anderson, Christopher Renfrow and Olivia Neider, all in at least their second year with the program. The newcomers are Logan Holloman, Andrea Niebel, Andrew Renfrow, Grant Meadows and Anthony Morales.

Police Chief Tony Reese introduced the members of the beach patrol team, as well, Jeff Waters, Amin Lopez, Mike Panzarella, Jeffery Edgerton, Connor Woodling and Andrew Rahm, all of whom are in at least their second year. The newcomers are Alex Allinen, Grace Herbert, Tucker Robinson and Michael Heidel.

The patrol is responsible for enforcing all beach rules.

Also during the meeting, Susie Van Guilder, speaking during public comment, urged town residents to come to the Trading Post restaurant Sunday at 2 p.m. for an event she has organized to honor and give  gifts to the surfers and lifeguards who have helped rescue swimmers this year.

She said she’s still in the process of getting the names and contacting surfers.

“It’s not been an easy task to track down surfers,” she said, because many of them don’t want recognition. She said she’s reached many and is turning in forms to the town to honor specific ones who’ve been involved, as well as the names of town first responders who’ve been involved.

The town pays the lifeguards, so the best way to help the guards is probably gift cards for businesses, Ms. Van Guilder said. As of Wednesday, she’d raised more than $2,000 from businesses and others.

The event Sunday will feature live music, food and a moment of silence for those who drowned this year.

The family of Paige Merical, a 17-year-old Wake Forest High School student who was one of two teen friends who drowned off the town’s beach April 19, plans to be at the event, according to Ms. Van Guilder.

The Mericals have started an educational campaign called “Don’t Fight the Rip” to teach people more about rip currents and how to survive them if caught and plan to have materials available at the event.

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

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