Last month, Bay County commissioners voted unanimously to pass an emergency ordinance, giving Sheriff Frank McKeithen and his deputies the teeth to enforce the gulf's warning flag system.
The move allows law enforcement officers to ticket and even arrest people who ignore the double red warning flags. The ordinance is working well enough that commissioners decided today to make the ordinance a permanent county law.
Tuesday morning, Bay County commissioners decided to make permanent a temporary measure that created penalties for those who swim in the Gulf when double red flags.
The temporary emergency ordinance came last month in the wake of 10 tourist drownings over up to that point.
Frank McKeithen, Bay County Sheriff, said, "I don't know what the reason for that is, whether it's just been over abundant of rough water this year, or the fact that people don't know to stay out of the water. Something had to be done, I believe."
The ordinance has given sheriff's deputies something they can enforce when they warn people to stay out of the water. Instead of just saying stay out of the water because you could drown, deputies can now tell you to stay out of the water or you can go to jail.
"When a law enforcement officer tries to control a situation like that where they are putting their lives in jeopardy then there needs to be two things, we either need to get rid of the flag system or we need to enforce the flag system."
No one has drowned since the ordinance when into affect for Bay County's unincorporated beaches well enough for commissioners to make it permanent.
Jerry Girvin, Bay County commissioner, said, “Well, you've got to have a driver's license. There are all kinds of restrictions put in place for the public good, and this is one of them."
Summer is winding down, so we'll see fewer tourists on the beaches, but law enforcement officials believe it is important to have this ordinance in place when spring breakers start making their way back to town in March.
To view a copy of the flag ordinance, www.co.bay.fl.us/bocc/agenda/0916-25-fy08.pdf