Lifeguard Debate Continues on Panama City Beach


Red flags certainly haven't stopped the number of drownings on Panama City Beach from skyrocketing this year.

"Those beach flags do not come down off the poles to help people, and the majority of the people that are heeding the advice of the beach flags are not the ones going in the water and getting into trouble," said Gary Wise of the South Walton Fire District.

Wednesday, despite the red warning, another man lost his life in the rough waters. Including that drowning, the total number of deaths is now up to 11. City officials agree lifeguards are needed on the beaches, but what they can't agree on is the funding.

The Santa Rosa Island Authority, which includes Pensacola Beach, funds their lifeguard system for $700,000 a year, including 34 mostly part-time lifeguards.

South Walton's lifeguard program costs about $640,000 a year with 30 lifeguards, again, most part-time. Destin Fire Control District has between 30-40 lifeguards at any given time at a cost of about $475,000 a year.

Some of those districts charge a user-tax on visitors to help pay. At least one city official expressed disappointment no one from the condo or hotel industry showed up to Thursday's meeting.

"If the industry thinks we need lifeguards, I'd like for them to tell us that and then we can fund it, and I can guarantee you we can put a referendum on the next ballot and we will vote if Bay County wants a special taxing situation set up to fund lifeguards," said Panama City Beach Mayor Gayle Oberst.

Panama City Beach resident David Spencer says having safety equipment available on the beach could help save lives.

"Is there anything on the beach to help somebody in need? We can't have manned lifeguards stern to stern on Panama City Beach. That's just not going to work. We can't afford it. But what we can do is create a different idea that might help the individual who is out there and empower them enough to get somebody safely back to the beach," said David Spencer, a Panama City Beach resident.

Right now all city officials are committing to is two lifeguards at the City Pier beginning next April. Between Panama City Beach and unincorporated areas, rescue workers were called out 414 times so far this year, compared to 187 water calls in 2007.

As for a user tax, council member Jeff Ferguson made a point that he would not support it. The other council members did not express their opinions.

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