BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB) — After a deadly summer in the Panhandle, officials with the National Weather Service of Tallahassee wanted to pay a visit to Bay County to talk beach safety.
The group hosted a beach safety meeting at the Bay County Emergency Operations Center and invited officials from both Bay and Walton Counties, along with meteorologists to now focus on how to better educate beachgoers.
“Most of the fatalities are folks, land lovers, etc. that are coming down here on vacation. They’re not familiar with the beach flag system, they may not respect it, or pay attention to it, these are the folks that are getting into trouble. So, just trying to figure out ways to solve the problem,” said Mark Wool, NWS Tallahassee Coordination Meteorologist.
Wool says they wanted to see how they could integrate their messaging system with the systems our local organizations use.
“A lot of it has to do with the challenge of communicating risk to the public so we’re trying to figure out ways we can do a better job of doing that,” Wool said.
News 13’s Chief Meteorologist Ross Whitley and Weekend Meteorologist Sam Lucey also attended the event and offered what challenges they see as weather watchers.
The ones who attended all brainstormed ideas on how to reach more people with life-saving information.
“I think the idea of targeted messaging, possibly in the future being able to put out an alert to people here on vacation, that’s going to be huge because everyone that goes to the beach has their cell phone,” said Sergeant Mike Morris of the Bay County Sheriff’s Office.
The difficulty comes in making people who don’t live on the beach comprehend the danger.
“Even though the flag system is very intuitive, they still don’t understand the gravity of the situation so if we can get that messaging to them before they even leave their homes and they’re on their way down here. We always need to keep it positive but at some point, you have to make people understand the gravity of the situation,” said David Vaughan, Walton County Beach Safety Director.
Vaughan says, of course, they want to keep a positive message to residents and visitors but sometimes, that’s not an option.
“At some point, you have to make people understand the gravity of the situation and what we’ve gone through as a local community here in the recent past to make them understand that when we fly it, we mean it. We’re not trying to ruin your fun. We’re not trying to squash your dreams but we are trying to make sure that you can go home and you can curse the mean lifeguards for keeping you out of the water but you’re going to be doing so in a healthy way. We’ll take it. As long as you’re safe,” said Vaughan.
Both Vaughan and Morris agree though, there will be challenges into reaching the goal of better communication.
“For people who have never been here, getting them introduced to it. For people who are returning, is recalibrating their expectations and making them understand that ‘hey look. Look what happens,'” Vaughan said.
So far this year, Walton County has had three deaths during double red flags, unincorporated Bay County has had one and Panama City Beach has seen more than 10 drownings.
The Panama City Beach City Council recently passed a Beach Safety Ordinance while Bay County has had one in place for years.