"Every week brings a new crowd with a potential set of new problems as far as exposure control."
A mask wasn’t typically seen as a lifeguard’s garb – until now.
Many people across the nation are being asked to wear masks and socially distance inside their workplace because of the coronavirus outbreak. And, while a lifeguard’s workplace is on the beach – a space with a seemingly subjective risk level – they, too, are at risk of being infected or infecting others and, because of it, facing many of the same expectations.
David Vaughan, the South Walton Beach Director for South Walton Fire District Station 3, explained why.
"Even during the pandemic and economic crisis we’re going through, we’re seeing comparable numbers to 2018 and 2019 on the beach this summer," Vaughan said. "It is literally business as usual. What that means is you have thousands of visitors every week – of whatever degrees of taking this seriously and heeding our message of beach safety while social distancing. We try to provide our service and protect our guards. It’s a cycle of potential exposures. Every week brings a new crowd with a potential set of new problems as far as exposure control."
South Walton Fire District Station 3 has provided the lifeguards with ample personal protective equipment which includes a mask and gloves, Vaughan said.
"Any type of patient contact, they’re required to wear masks," Vaughan said. "We’re encouraging them to wear masks at all times, but we’re not requiring them to wear it at all times."
Masks and water don’t mix though. They run into issues with that guideline while conducting water rescue operations, he said.
"In those cases, we have to conduct business as usual and we have to do potential exposure reporting and monitor those guards who made patient contact," Vaughan said. "We don’t use PPE to conduct the water rescue. You can’t wear a paper mask when you’re doing a water rescue. People have been trying to come up with some solutions across the industry, but to the best of my knowledge, that’s where we have a breakdown."
And that’s where Vaughan wants locals and vacationers to do their part in preventative measures.
"The method we’re trying to emphasize to people during red flags and double red flags is it makes it that much more germane to keep the beach safety warnings and flag system," Vaughan said. "Listen to the lifeguards when they’re telling you not to put yourself and others at risk. The beaches are open here in the panhandle, and we’re grateful for the fact that we have a job to do right now. What we are asking people to do is respect themselves and each other and our personnel."
Social distancing changes procedures, too.
Isaiah Boyd, a beach safety officer – a new position between the lifeguards and supervisors –said they have limited their public interaction.
"That includes pulling the towers to the back of the beach or where we have less interaction with the public coming down," Boyd said. "We try to stay away from those boardwalks where we have a lot of traffic.
"We’re used to close, personal interactions, so we’ve had to resort to bullhorns to spread messages and using a lot more of our whistling – trying to maintain social distancing out on the beach in our normal preventative messaging interactions," Vaughan said.
The lifeguards also undergo health checks every morning, Boyd said.
The District has had to send some lifeguards home because of potential exposures and self-reported potential exposures, Vaughan said.
"I’m happy to say none of our guards have come back and tested positive," Vaughan said in an interview Thursday. "We haven’t had to any contact tracing that required a significant loss of work force. That is always subject to change."
The lifeguards have also become more diligent about cleaning procedures, Vaughan said. They are armed with COVID-19 specific cleaning agents they use to deep clean the vehicles at the beginning and end of the day and periodically through their shifts.
They also wipe down the lifeguard towers.
"We have to leave our towers up overnight," Vaughan said. "Unlike Pensacola, they’re not the covered, lockable shack type towers; they’re aluminum frame towers that sit out on the beach. We know that the public has access overnight. We’ve had incidences of vandalism, theft with the towers."
One of their biggest adjustments is to their beach wheelchair service. Before, a person could go to one of the five wheelchair accessible regional beach accesses and request the assistance of a lifeguard from the parking lot, down a boardwalk and to a position of comfort on the beach within 100 meters of the lifeguard tower, he said. When they were ready to leave, the lifeguard maintained control, grabbing the wheelchair and helping them back to the parking lot and into their vehicle, he said.
"To continue to provide the beach wheelchair service, what we’ve had to resort to doing is we lend out the wheelchair instead of the lifeguard controlling it because that’s a liability issue," Vaughan said. "Immediately when they return it – we don’t mean to insult anyone – we wipe it down so the next person can use it."
Beach Safety Division Chief Rich Huffnagle thinks working outdoors gives lifeguards an advantage over people who work in a hospital or emergency medical services setting in terms of preventative measures, he said. He, too, said masks are mandated during patient contact.
"For lifeguarding, it’s not as big of an issue as you have inside," Huffnagle said. "The other thing is, of course, you can’t wear masks in the water. For now that’s what we’re doing. That may change, but for right now, we just follow CDC guidelines. For the most part when they’re on patrol, they can stay 6 feet apart for people."
In terms of extra sanitation measures, he thinks being in an "open air environment" helps.
"They wash the rigs down everyday anyway," Huffnagle said. "The ATVs they bring off the beach are washed daily as they come off the beach."
The majority of beachgoers comply with social distancing now, too, he said.
"You see families together, but I see a lot less big crowd congregations on the beach," Huffnagle said. "For the most part, those groups are staying distanced from each other."