Okaloosa focuses on beach safety

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TONY JUDNICH @Tonyjnwfdn

CRESTVIEW — Okaloosa County officials hope a new public beach safety campaign will help educate visitors about the beach flag warning system, Gulf of Mexico currents and marine life.

The initial campaign is planned to run from May 1 through Oct. 31. It will feature a series of 12-foot-by-24-foot digital and vinyl billboards placed along highly-traveled roads, as well as digital messages sent via a geo-fencing program to people’s cell phones when they enter certain areas.

The existing educational beach signs, such as those that describe the beach flag warning system, are not adequate, county Tourist Development Department Director Jennifer Adams said Thursday.

“What spawned the idea (for the campaign) are best practices,” she said. “There are some dangers at the beach. We don’t need to be shoving (safety information) in their face, but we need to get that message out there.”

For last year’s official lifeguard season from early March through October, beach safety officials reported a record-high, 4.1 million-plus visitors to beaches in Okaloosa, Walton and Santa Rosa counties.

There also were four drownings during the season, and one that took place immediately after the season ended.

Beach safety officials last season made 1,140 rescues and almost 1.8 million public contacts informing beachgoers of beach safety conditions and tips.

Over the past several months, Adams met with the county Public Safety, Okaloosa Island Fire District and Destin Fire Control District chiefs and identified a need for a beach safety campaign, according to county information.

“Our goal is to not have any the tragedies,” Adams said.

On Tuesday, the County Commission unanimously approved spending up to $200,000 in TDD promotional reserve funds for the new beach safety campaign.

The funding includes $119,217.50 that will be paid to St. Petersburg-based Aqua Marketing & Communications for billboard advertising.

Digital and vinyl billboards containing information about the beach flag system, currents and marine life are planned to be installed at various locations. The billboards will contain messages such as “Knee Deep Is Too Deep” when rip currents are present, as well as “Leave No Trace,” which encourages people not to litter or leave their belongings behind.

Adams said the exact locations of the billboards are being negotiated.

According to a map provided with the agenda request for the beach safety campaign money, the billboards could be installed: Along southbound State Road 85 on the south side of Crestview; by the north end of Brooks Bridge; by the intersection of U.S. Highway 98 and Wright Parkway; by Publix along Mary Esther Cut-off; on Beal Parkway just south of Racetrack Road; at the intersection of Racetrack Road and Eglin Parkway; along U.S. 98 in front of and just east of Henderson Beach State Park; and along S.R. 20 by Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park and by the intersection of state roads 20 and 293.

In addition, the campaign will feature location-based, digital beach safety alerts that will appear on smartphones once drivers enter a “geo-fence,” which is a virtual boundary around a real-world geographic area.

For example, when a vehicle reaches the top of the Mid-Bay Bridge, an alert would appear on the driver’s and passengers’ phones about what type of warning flags are flying on the beaches.

Such push notifications could include ‘Welcome to Destin-Fort Walton Beach. Red flags are flying,’ Adams said.

Commission Vice-Chairman Kelly Windes, whose district includes Destin, said he supports the overall beach safety campaign.

“The importance of our beaches to our county is, of course, huge, and if we can keep incidents down to a minimum with the implementation of this program, it’s gotta help,” he said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Adams said the budget for the campaign could increase in future years.

“This (initial campaign) is really just a test and learn,” she said Thursday. “I have to see the response to it.”

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