Budget cuts threaten public safety near water

Miami-Dade County has proposed a budget plan for 2012 that will cut funds from the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department. These cuts will also affect the Ocean Rescue Bureau in the Fire Rescue Department, which hires lifeguards for public beaches.

Similarly, lifeguard programs across South Florida are suffering from budget cuts. Palm Beach County has already revealed their proposed budget plan to cut $4.8 million in its parks and recreations, which includes reducing lifeguard coverage. Hollywood Beach has already eliminated four lifeguard positions and have proposed to possibly eliminate 18 other lifeguard positions, but this is still under negotiation.

With these cuts, public safety is now being jeopardized. Lifeguards have supervised more than 2 million beach-goers and prevented 53,420 incidents, according to the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue  Department’s website.

Despite these cuts, Gerry Falconer, president of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA), feels that lifeguards are a necessity.

“The primary job of any lifeguard is to prevent a dangerous situation before it occurs,” Falconer said. “Lifeguards are always needed because you never know when you’re going to need one.”

The USLA is a professional non-profit association of beach lifeguards and open water rescuers. Their mission is to reduce the incidence of injury and fatalities in the aquatic environment through public education, national lifeguard standards, training programs and lifeguard readiness.

“For a lot of cities in the state of Florida, lifeguards are ambassadors to cities and guardians to the surf,” Falconer said. “The beaches now, more than ever, need to be protected.”

With this proposed budget plan, there may be fewer lifeguards patrolling the beach. This will make avoidable situations hard to prevent, which could lead to a serious concern for beach safety.

“Unfortunately, during times of economic stress and budget cuts, the public looks for the easiest thing to cut,” Falconer said. “The reality is, less lifeguards create a potentially dangerous situation for anyone entering the surf.”

The budget cuts further complicate a difficult job, said senior Diego Donna, who has worked as a lifeguard for four years at UM.

“The hardest part is sometimes trying to stay awake and attentive,” Donna said. “You can get drowsy or easily distracted during a shift. It’s tough enough keeping an eye on a big group of people, and any slight movement grabs your attention and distracts you form other people.”

Miami is a popular tourist destination, thanks to its perennially warm waters and white beaches. Approximately 82 million tourists visited Florida in 2010 and spent around $62 billion, according to visitflorida.com.

“The lack of lifeguards creates a bigger risk than their needs to be,” Donna said. “With more lifeguards watching and patrolling the beach, you minimize the potential for drownings and Florida is one of the states with the highest drowning death rates.”

In 2009, 485 residents drowned and 388 were hospitalized for non-fatal drownings, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Patrick Davies, a biomedical engineering major, says the lifeguard budget cuts don’t sound smart or effective.

“There are not that many lifeguards as it is and I can’t see how it is cost effective,” Davies said. “It doesn’t seem smart to remove the little safety we have from our main tourist attraction.”