Water condition flag program saves lives

Longboat Key Fire Chief

Longboat Key is a beautiful place to live and visit and the main reason is because of the beautiful beaches. The beaches draw families that want to enjoy a fun day in the waters of the Gulf, but they must remember that Longboat Key does not have ‘guarded’ beaches, meaning there are no lifeguards on duty.

Over the years, Longboat Key Fire Rescue personnel have been called to several water rescue emergencies that resulted in poor patient/victim outcomes. A question the fire department had to answer was, “How can we make a difference in this situation?”

The question was fairly simple to answer…”prevention.” The philosophy of Longboat Key Fire Rescue has, and will, continue to be prevention driven and this has also been the approach to water safety.

The department had five phases of implementing a water safety program: (1) obtain the necessary equipment, (2) provide training to all personnel, (3) implement a beach safety program, (4) provide annual training for all personnel, and (5) educate the public to be aware of water conditions.

Three years ago the fire department purchased water rescue equipment including a Polaris jet ski, mobile marine radios, rescue boards, and equipment that can be carried on the fire rescue apparatus for quick deployment in a water rescue emergency. Much of this equipment was obtained through grants. Once this equipment was purchased, training was very important. Who better to train firefighters in water emergencies than the professionals that do it every day…area lifeguards. The department made contact with them to provide training to all fire rescue personnel on how to use the rescue boards, the best way to operate a jet-ski during an emergency and how to approach a victim in the water. Personnel were brought in on their day off to ensure no interruption in either emergency services or their training. All department personnel attended the class that resulted in a better understanding of their own capabilities, as well as becoming proficient on the new equipment.

After ensuring all personnel were trained, the next and most important step was to begin the process of educating the public on the importance of water safety, which is something that is not always thought about by beachgoers. There were many ideas as to how we could accomplish this. All of them were excellent, and therefore incorporated into our program. The first step was already done as Public Works had signage at all public beach accesses educating the public concerning rip currents. The fire department wanted to expand on that by providing signage to condominiums whereby they could post rip current signs along the path leading to the beach. Many condominiums participated by placing these signs on their properties, as well as flyers in elevators and in individual rental units. Following this, the fire department made contact with the State of Florida to see how Longboat Key could obtain the water safety flags (flags that are flown on guarded beaches providing an awareness on water conditions). The State of Florida provided the department with several sets of flags along with signage explaining and defining the flag program. Once these flags were received, the fire department made contact with Mote Marine Laboratory. Twice daily (10 a.m. and 3 p.m.) they are provided local water conditions by area lifeguards in both Manatee and Sarasota Counties, and likewise update their website accordingly.

The department knew something had to be done to provide beachgoers with an awareness of the water conditions, since there are no lifeguards on the ten miles of Longboat Key beaches. The decision was made to have each of our fire stations (north and south) fly the appropriate color flag, providing this awareness to the public.  Therefore, over a year ago Longboat Key Fire Rescue implemented a “Water Condition Flag Program” similar to that which lifeguards use on surrounding area beaches.

The policy: Each day, Longboat Key Fire Rescue receives an email from Mote Marine describing area water conditions. Specifically, the email has the color flag that is being flown at our neighboring islands’ ‘guarded’ beaches. Since Longboat Key Fire Rescue is between two counties the information from Lido and Cortez Beaches are obtained and the most stringent condition or flag color is flown at Longboat Key Fire stations. Example: Lido Beach is flying a green flag and Cortez is flying a yellow flag, Longboat Key Fire Rescue will then fly a yellow flag.

In order for this type of program to be successful, it takes everyone to do their part. From the lifeguard at the beaches, to Mote Marine, to the firefighter who raises the flat…it’s a team effort! The program is always being reviewed for possible enhancements. An area that is being looked at more closely is the communication between the lifeguards and the fire department. Instead of always relying on the Mote Marine website, contact could be made with local beaches for condition changes using 800Mhz radio.

This has proven to be a very successful program, and Longboat Key Fire Rescue can report that since its implementation over a year and a half ago, we have not had any water rescue emergencies on our beaches. We definitely feel this program should be utilized by all fire rescue departments as an awareness of water conditions to residents and visitors on all local beaches.


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