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Placing Beach Flags for Safety Zone Conditions

This is an excerpt from Safer Beaches by Thomas Griffiths.

Approved Wading Access (Color Code: Green and White)

Wading is defined as walking in the water to a depth no greater than waist deep. Waders should be instructed to have one foot on the bottom at all times and to not submerge beneath the surface. If water quality monitoring programs are not in place, it is advisable to post a sign indicating the lack of a water quality program: “Caution: Bacteria levels not monitored. For your safety, keep your head above water at all times.” United States Coast Guard-approved personal flotation devices (lifejackets) should be worn by nonswimmers in these areas. Parents must be urged to actively supervise their young waders from the water, not the beach.

Placing Beach Flags for Safety Zone Conditions

Beach flags are becoming more popular throughout the world, particularly at surf beaches. Although many experts agree with the beach flag concept, changing the colored flags in a timely fashion can be troublesome, particularly in areas where weather and water conditions are so unpredictable. Another potential problem with beach flags is that lifeguards often are required to take the flags down when they leave for the day. Many drowning deaths occur after hours when both lifeguards and flags are absent. Perhaps a special flag or sign is needed to discourage swimmers from entering the water after hours, particularly when water conditions are dangerous.

Flags to Identify Water Quality

One option is to use an appropriately striped flagpole from which could fly a colored water quality flag. Such flag systems have been met with much success at both freshwater and marine beaches worldwide. Red flags are often used to indicate no swimming because of high bacteria levels. Blue flags generally indicate acceptable bacteria levels as of the date of the last test. Blue flags (and Blue Flag awards) are used in Europe and South Africa to indicate clean water that has passed bacteria standards (see
/Criteria/EuropeanBeaches). In some states, such as Kansas, blue flags are used to indicate clean water, while green flags indicate water is safe for recreation activities, but persons should shower if they've had full contact with the water, should avoid swallowing the water, and should wash their hands before eating or drinking. However, these are advisable regardless of bacteria levels and should be part of a general education campaign regarding water quality issues.

Flags to Identify Surf Conditions

The water quality flag system should not be confused with a beach warning flag system often used at marine beaches to indicate surf conditions. Most beach flag advocates recommend the traffic light color scheme (red, yellow, and green).

Double red: water closed to public

Red: high hazard

Yellow: medium hazard

Green: low hazard

Purple: marine pest present

Channeling the Public to Beach Access Points

Aggressive safety signage is a vitally important service for all beach visitors, but even the best signs will be ineffective if they are not read because the public is not drawn to them. With appropriate landscaping, fences, and barriers, the public—particularly families with young children—can be better warned and educated as they are channeled to approved shoreline points that have been inspected for safety. Approved access points are recommended instead of attempting to place signage in a repeated manner across an entire beachfront. Providing easy access for persons with disabilities during this channeling process is of paramount importance.

Once shoreline zones and access points are identified, one option is to put in place a numbering system for each access area. The numbers should be consecutive and continue along the perimeter of the shoreline to the last numbered access point. For an inland body of water, the system of numbering should rotate clockwise around the waterfront. No distinction in the number system should be made between the shoreline zones and types of access points (wading, fishing, boating, closed access, and so on). This numbering system allows for a coordinated and timely response from the local emergency services (police, fire, EMS) because all zones are numbered for identification and follow a numerical pattern around the shoreline rather than randomly assigned numbers for each area. A tall telephone-type pole or PVC pole striped with the zone color should be placed in a central location, prominently displaying the access point number on an appropriately colored sign (blue, green, brown, or orange). These beach poles can also be used as family meeting places should children become separated from their parents. Emergency pull boxes or call boxes and basic water rescue equipment could also be placed on or near these poles.

Functional and friendly access to the beach can be accomplished through a variety of ways including fences, landscaping that cannot be breached, berms, and other physical barriers. Whether driving, biking, or walking to the beach, guests should eventually be guided through a few central pedestrian paths, walkovers, or entrances so that each and every guest can be effectively and efficiently educated about safe and enjoyable ways to use the beach.

An information kiosk that is weatherproof and vandal proof should also be placed at most entrances. These kiosks can help convey advisories and public education materials. Likewise, boaters should be warned and educated as they are channeled or funneled to their launches.

Using Access Points to Warn and Educate

If you strategically position aggressive warning signs that are designed properly and not camouflaged in long lists of rules and regulations, it would be difficult for guests to claim ignorance. People who have been injured at the beach often claim they were unaware the hazard existed or that they did not see the warning signs.

Hazard signs and other warnings particular to certain beaches are of paramount importance and should be placed at each entrance. Danger and warning signs at beach entry points should be emphasized over other rules and regulations (e.g., directions and behaviors that are not life threatening), should be larger and more conspicuous than other signage, and should use appropriate warning shapes and colors. Borrowing from the highway signs is an excellent idea in this regard.

Universal Warnings

Of all the rules, regulations, and information needing to be signed at beaches, there are five very important warnings that apply universally to just about all beaches:

1. Parents, please supervise your children closely and constantly.

2. No diving or other headfirst entries.

3. No breath holding or prolonged underwater swimming.

4. Nonswimmers should always wear a lifejacket.

5. Warning: Hidden hazards. (Include beach-specific hazards here: rip currents, dangerous marine life, and so on.)

At most swimming beaches, all other information falls far below the significance and timeliness of these four major safety concerns. These warnings are also important for reminding individuals and families of their responsibility to behave in a way that reduces the likelihood of an injury or drowning. Beaches can simply, inexpensively, and effectively post these five warnings conspicuously in parking lots, at the beach entrances, and on the back of lifeguard stations.

Warn to Supervise Children

Unfortunately, parents do not realize how quickly a drowning can occur. It takes only seconds for a child to drown, some estimates stating that drowning can occur in as little as 90 seconds.

Adults are often lax in supervision, thinking their supervision is adequate if they are in the general area and occasionally checking where their children are. If parents are not in the water with children who are weak swimmers or nonswimmers, and they are not within arm's reach, they are not actively supervising their

Distressed nonswimmers can slip beneath the surface of the water in as little as 20 seconds and without warning. Once a child slips below the surface of the water, drowning occurs silently. Although many parents supervise their children passively at home, when it comes to safety in, on, or around the water, children must be supervised both actively and aggressively. Messages such as “If you're more than an arm's length away, you've gone too far”; “Two seconds is too long”; and “It only takes seconds for a child to drown” are important safety messages that have been used throughout North America. All waterfronts should adopt a safety campaign to educate the public that children of tender years must be closely guarded around the water.

Warn Against Headfirst Entries

Approximately 800 to 900 catastrophic neck injuries resulting in permanent paralysis (quadriplegia or paraplegia) or death are caused by ill-advised headfirst entries into shallow water. Of these injuries, most result in death. Most serious neck injuries occur in open water rather than in swimming pools or from diving boards. Approximately two-thirds of all catastrophic neck injuries occur in open-water environments (Griffiths 2003). Running down a beach and then diving headfirst into shallow water is a classic recipe for a catastrophic neck injury. Particularly when both turbid and shallow water exist, catastrophic neck injuries are a very real hazard. Additionally, many people believe the longer a dock extends into the water, the deeper the water is, and as a result, diving is safe from the end of most docks. Of course, this is not necessarily true, and someone's poor judgment in this regard can result in serious injury or death.

Aggressive warnings prohibiting headfirst entries from beaches, docks, piers, and other structures into open water are clearly necessary. “No diving” signs with a “no diving” international graphic logo should be posted strategically. “No diving” should also be posted directly onto the horizontal planks and vertical posts of all docks, piers, and jetties. Because most diving injuries involve alcohol consumption, a serious yet creative sign campaign could state “Drinking and diving do not mix.”

Read more about Safer Beaches.

More Excerpts From Safer Beaches