BEach Safe: Alabama coast cities amplify safety message ahead of tourism season
Beach rescues at Gulf Shores and Orange Beach dropped just over 40 percent last year from 2021, and drowning deaths were cut by more than half, the tourism agency for the two Alabama coastal cities reports.
Why the significant drop in those tragedies or near tragedy?
Officials say one reason for the decline could be the BEach Safe campaign to inform beachgoers about red flag warnings and warn them about dangerous surf. It began last year and the two cities are increasing awareness of the campaign. And an unincorporated beach community, plagued with tragic drownings in recent years, is joining the effort.
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The early data indicates the campaign is working, and Gulf Shores city officials want the messaging spread to every beachside condo within the city.
The City Council, on Monday, adopted an ordinance requiring the condos and high-rises to post information about flag warnings, and signs alerting visitors about rip currents.
The signage is part of BEach Safe. The signs will included details on the ALBEACHES text to access real-time flag warning information.
By now, coastal residents likely know what the beach warning flags mean, such as a double red flag alerts visitors that the beaches are closed because of rough surf conditions. But with millions of visitors flocking to the coast, it might not be common knowledge for out-of-towners to know the difference between a double or a single red flag. A single flag, which does not close the beach, warns people of high surf or strong currents.
BEach Safe was created in 2021 and unveiled in March 2022 by Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, to make more visitors aware.
“We noticed there were no signs at every condo and in the elevators and in the lobbies (at vacation rentals),” said Joethan Phillips, the beach safety chief with the Gulf Shores Fire Department. “The goal of this ordinance is not to put the hammer down on people, but to get them involved and to talk about the BEach Safe campaign.”
The city is spending approximately $2,700 to pay for the signs and to begin spreading them to the vacation rentals. The signs will be posted on boardwalks leading visitors from their vacation rentals to the beaches, within lobby areas and inside elevators.
The signs are similar in design and have the same BEach Safe logo found on similar signs that were installed a year ago. The signs have also been provided to restaurants throughout Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
“We wanted a collaborative effort where it’s the same message that you see when you go to a restaurant and you see ‘BEach Safe,’” said Phillips. “It’s about using the same logos. It’s about seeing it over and over. If you see it everywhere, and you see the lifeguards, then it’s a big deal.”
In Orange Beach, which has a similar ordinance in place, officials say 75% or greater of condominium owners have signage posted that describes the meaning of the flag warning system.
“Condos can reach a vast majority of the people who reach our beaches,” said Brett Lesinger, beach safety division chief in Orange Beach. “If we can have information posted at specific spots, we can target specific people. Elevator shafts, and south facing doors at all facilities. And, of course, the boardwalks leading to the beaches.”
According to the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism data, beach rescues dropped between 2021 and 2022, from 320 to 150 in Gulf Shores, and from 197 to 157 in Orange Beach. Drowning deaths also dropped, from six on unguarded and guarded beaches in 2021, to two last year.
The agency also reported 15,247 ALBEACHES text message opt-ins in 2022. And aside from Alabama residents, the highest number of beach safety landing page visitors came from Illinois, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Iowa, and Missouri.
Beth Gendler, president and CEO with Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, said the organization has always included beach safety information in guest materials. But she said the partnership with the cities, counties, emergency management, and 911 brought about ideas on how to amplify efforts to get the information to more people before they step onto the beaches.
BEach Safe’s mission, she said, is to reduce rescues and drownings.
“We are on this mission together to educate the millions of guests who come to our beaches each year – and the thousands of new residents in Baldwin County – so they and their loved ones can enjoy our beaches safely,” Gendler said. “BEach Safe will continue to expand as we find new ways or even new technologies to educate people and raise their awareness.”
Gendler said the more signs and more times the message is spotted, the better.
“In the advertising and marketing world, it is a common belief that you have to get a message in front of someone at least seven times before it stays with them,” she said. “So with the collateral and signage our organization has developed and made available at no cost to local businesses, billboards we have up along the Beach Express and Highway 59 coming into the area, as well as the messaging and signage installed by the cities and county along beach access points and the text alert sign-up program … we have been pushing diligently for the last year to get BEach Safe information in front of people as many times as possible.”
BEach Safe signage will also be installed in the coming months along the beach access points along Fort Morgan Road and within the unincorporated Fort Morgan peninsula that stretches for 20 miles west of Gulf Shores.
The beaches within this stretch – unlike Orange Beach and Gulf Shores – do not have trained lifeguards and have been the focus in recent years of drownings and chaotic situations including the June 6, 2021, drowning of a Baldwin County sheriff’s deputy while attempting to save the life of a distressed swimmer during dangerous surf conditions.