A dozen lifesavers! Beachgoers form 'risky' human chain to save Panama City Beach swimmer

Nathan Cobb
The News Herald

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Beachgoers formed a human chain to rescue a swimmer in Panama City Beach on Wednesday.

Still, local officials warn against ever using such a tactic.

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With hands clasped together, about a dozen bystanders used the tactic off Emerald Isle Beach Resort to pull one person from the Gulf of Mexico, according to Wil Spivey, beach safety director for Panama City Beach Fire Rescue. 

Local officials say it is never a good idea for beachgoers to form a human chain to rescue a distressed swimmer. Instead, they should immediately call 911 and wait for lifeguards or first responders to arrive.

"We're happy that everybody made it out safe yesterday, super thankful for that, but it can go the other way and a single victim can turn into multiple victims or a mass casualty incident," Spivey said. "I wouldn't advocate that anybody who's not trained to effect rescues enter the Gulf to make rescues. Even if you're a good swimmer, you can get overpowered by the conditions or the victim if they climb on top of you."

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He also said an unfortunate example of when a human chain didn't work occurred in South Walton last week, when two people involved drowned off Miramar Beach. Several others were taken to a hospital. 

The best thing for people to do when they notice a struggling swimmer is to call 911 and wait for lifeguards or first responders to arrive on scene, Spivey said. 

However, it can take just minutes for someone to drown. 

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Councilman Paul Casto, who said his first job with the city was as a lifeguard, said if it seems the swimmer cannot wait until professionals arrive, the next best thing is for just one person to go after them with some sort of flotation device. 

This limits the amount of people in the water and provides some safety for both people involved. 

"Look for some type of flotation close by you ... something that's floatable that when you get out there to them, you've got something for them to hold onto," Casto said. "The person in trouble, most of the time, doesn't have any flotation, and then ones who do ... are the ones who survive."

Like Spivey, he agreed that human chains are never a good idea in the Gulf, but something that gained popularity "years ago" as a way of rescuing swimmers from lakes, which don't have the same type of unpredictable waves or currents. 

Almost two years since a dozen people drowned off PCB, Casto said he believes it's important for the city to figure out some way to fund additional seasonal lifeguards

The city is in the process of hiring and training about a dozen lifeguards for the peak season, with some positions still available. That is the same number that oversaw the beach last year. 

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In the past, PCB officials tried to form private-public partnerships with beachfront businesses to fund additional lifeguards to patrol their portion of the coast. The idea has gained little momentum, with no businesses having entered into an agreement yet. 

Casto added that he believes it's now time for the city and Bay County to brainstorm new ways to pay for more lifeguards, including possibly increasing the area's 5-cent bed tax placed on short-term rentals. 

"We're a real city now. We have real city problems, and until we figure out how to put lifeguards down there, this is going to continue to happen," said Casto, who added that he believes tourists should fund the extra positions. "We explored that option and we didn't have any takers on it."