SANTA ROSA BEACH, Fla. (WMBB) — Walton County beaches are officially in the off-season but lifeguards are still on duty. The South Walton Fire District Beach Safety Division had a busy summer with more rescues than last year. 

“So last year, I think we had 134. This year we’re up to 159 so we did see an uptick in actual water rescue activity,” said David Vaughan, SWFD beach safety director. 

Three people drowned in 2023, and other medical emergencies on the beach ended in fatalities.

Vaughan said they had more rescues because they increased staff to battle the unpredictable gulf with 23 full-time employees and nearly 40 seasonal lifeguards. 

“Back in June, we had a 16-day run where we had national attention for the drowning activity. That was all across the Gulf Coast. So it was a busy year,” said Vaughan. 

As of November 1, the watch towers are stored away meaning lifeguards will patrol the beaches on ATVs until next spring. 

“We are still out here. We’re still going to have a presence. We’re still looking out for you,” said Vaughan.

In the meantime, full-time employees are getting additional training and medical experience to better serve residents and visitors next season. 

“We’re doing a lot of specialized medical devices. We’re using the automatic CPR, we’re using advanced suction devices, we’re using King Airways now. So we’re really kicking up our medical game,” said Vaughan.  

A personal watercraft rescue course is helping lifeguards save more people faster. Instructors are training lifeguards from SWFD, Walton County Sheriff’s Office, Okaloosa Island, Gulf Shores, and Orange Beach.

“You can get out on a jet ski in seconds versus swimming out and with or on your rescue board takes minutes. And sometimes in the certain situations where people are without oxygen, you have four to 6 minutes to get this, get them back to shore, back to advanced life support measures,” said Glen Kuehner, course instructor.

SWFD hosts the training every year.