South Walton Junior Lifeguard Program Building Surf Rescue Culture

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By Mackenzie McClintock, South Walton Fire District Public Information Officer

In South Walton, the summertime wave of enthusiasm for surf rescue is undeniably contagious.

This wave first started building 20 years ago, when the Emerald Coast experienced one of its darkest days, known locally as Black Sunday. Numerous people fatally drowned due to rough surf and rip currents along a coastline where professional lifeguard programs were not yet established.

The community desperately needed a change, and public safety agencies along the coast began cultivating resources and implementing beach safety programs. Fast-forward to 2008, when a few dozen of South Walton’s youngest community members took a chance and participated in the first-ever South Walton Fire District (SWFD) Junior Lifeguard Program.

Their community was lacking general knowledge and respect for safety in the open water, but their willingness to learn created a ripple at the right time for a successful and strong initiative to grow.

Junior Lifeguard Programs Grows

Fifteen years later, more than 150 children, ages 9-16 years old, spend weeks of their summer learning what it takes to protect a beach community that boasts more than 6 million annual visitors.

“As soon as we think we have reached the limit of potential interest in our program, it explodes with popularity once again,” said SWFD Beach Safety Director David Vaughan. “We have seen record registration numbers now for several years in a row without doing much advertising. The community has embraced us. The demand for this program is leaps and bounds beyond what most of us ever expected.”

The SWFD Junior Lifeguard Program not only experienced massive registration numbers in 2023, but it also evolved to offer a pathway to future employment for its oldest participants.

For the first time, 16-year-old junior lifeguards had the opportunity to participate and earn their Open Water Lifeguard Certification through SWFD Beach Safety and the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA).

SWFD’s goal through this certification process is to make the transition from junior lifeguard to professional lifeguard as seamless as possible. Once a certified junior lifeguard turns 17-years-old, they can move from the summer program into a paid lifeguarding job with SWFD Beach Safety.

South Walton Fire District (SWFD) Junior Lifeguard Program

“My experience as a Junior Lifeguard on the Emerald Coast is a major reason why I considered a job in surf rescue after college,” said SWFD Beach Safety Lieutenant and Program Instructor Brandon Brown. “The Junior Lifeguard Program is our chance to shape the future of beach safety. Along with that, it gives kids a fun way to spend their summer while making friends and enjoying the beach.”

The current program consists of two, three-week sessions throughout June and July. Brown and the cohort of program instructors- Lifeguards Cameron Clements, Joey Strubhar, Erin Hartsel, and Rory Leaf- create hours of training activities for the participants based on the day’s surf conditions. The training aims to test not only a junior lifeguard’s physical abilities, but also their mental stamina and character.

At the conclusion of the three-week program, the junior lifeguards develop an irreplaceable skill set that will serve them well for the rest of their life on the Gulf Coast. They can identify and explain rip currents, rescue swimmers in distress, understand and follow the beach flag warning system, perform CPR and lifesaving first aid, and swim confidently in the open water.

“Ultimately, we want these kids to take what they have learned and tell their friends, tell their families, tell people who they have never met before if they are down at the beach and see people getting into trouble,” explained Director Vaughan. “We are reaching these children at an impressionable and crucial time in their lives, they develop the confidence they need to be difference makers in our community and advocate for beach safety.”

Despite the growth of local junior lifeguard programs, the understanding of the value of beach safety efforts is still growing along the Emerald Coast. Adversity comes nearly every summer for area public safety agencies when millions of people who are unfamiliar with the innate hazards of open water flock to Emerald Coast beaches. It only takes a few weeks of this tourism bump for drowning fatalities to begin splashing across local and national news headlines.

South Walton Fire District (SWFD) Junior Lifeguard Program

Families visiting the area ultimately return home without a loved one in tow, despite relentless messaging from local lifeguards about the dangers of rip currents, swimming near a lifeguard, and the beach flag warning system.

It is the smiling face of an exuberant junior lifeguard, covered in sand and breathless while begging for another round of practice rescues, that serves as an inspiring reminder for even the most seasoned surf rescue professionals that the future of beach safety is in capable hands.