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Lifeguards say more towers needed to cope with increase in beachgoers

Photo: Vero lifeguards and EMTs tend to a teen who was injured while bodyboarding at Jaycee Park.

Vero Beach lifeguards say they need a new observation tower and command center at Humiston Park, so they’re preparing to raise the $250,000 necessary to build one.

“There are so many people coming to our beaches, we’re finding that people are spreading out into unguarded areas north and south of the city parks,” said Erik Toomsoo, president of the Vero Beach Lifeguard Association, which plans to launch a fundraiser in the coming weeks.

“We need to get a better vantage point so we can see farther down the beach,” he added. “The city has 4 miles of beach, but only 600 yards are in city parks protected by lifeguards, and most of our rescues are done outside the parks.”

Thus far this year, the VBLA reported 40,430 beachgoers in January, 97,305 in February and 95,100 in March.

The February figure shattered the previous monthly attendance record of 90,000, set in March 2015. Last month’s attendance was the largest ever for March, at least since the VBLA began tracking those numbers in 2011.

Those attendance figures, however, do not include the growing number of beachgoers more than 100 yards north and south of the lifeguard-protected city parks, Toomsoo said.

The VBLA estimates that more than 1 million people visit city beaches annually.

“The numbers are going up – if not steadily, that’s the trend, like you see in the stock market – and we can fit only so many people in the guarded areas,” Toomsoo said. “So as beach attendance grows, more and more people are outside guarded areas, and that increases the likelihood of accidents and drownings.

“It takes a person only 20 to 60 seconds to drown, so with our towers being so far apart, the challenge for us is seeing someone in trouble and getting there in time to rescue them,” he added. “The good news is, we have ATVs on each beach.”

Vero Beach lifeguards already have made more than 20 rescues in 2018, 10 of them coming last month, when strong rip currents formed off local beaches.

The lifeguards also have provided minor, first-responder medical treatment to more than 200 beachgoers this year, including 195 calls for aid in February, when persistent southeast winds brought in Portuguese man-of-war and swimmers were stung.

The previous one-month record for minor-medical calls was 126 in March 2015.

The city currently has lifeguard towers at Jaycee, Humiston and South Beach parks, and Toomsoo said they’re all sufficiently manned. However, he’d like to see towers added at Conn Beach and Sexton Plaza.

“We lobbied for a tower at Sexton Plaza, and it would be nice if we could fill in that area at Conn Beach, but we really can’t expand the protected areas because, to do that, we’d need more park,” Toomsoo said.

“And to have a park, you need to have restrooms and parking, so there are obstacles that would need to be overcome,” he added. “Right now, we’re boxed in.”

Toomsoo cited a 2015 VBLA report comparing Vero Beach to 12 other municipalities from Indian River County to Miami-Dade – a study that found to Vero Beach ranked third in both “farthest distance between lifeguard towers” (1 mile) and “smallest percentage of guarded beach” (9 percent).

In comparison, 60 percent of the beach is guarded in Boca Raton, where the average distance between lifeguard towers is only 138 yards.

Toomsoo said Vero Beach has 19 lifeguards, including 10 that are full-time employees, and that the city beaches aren’t unusually dangerous as long as bathers are within sight.

He is concerned, however, about what might happen after the lifeguard go off duty at 5 p.m.

“Sometimes, we cringe when we leave,” he said, “because there are often more than 100 people still on the beach.”

That’s why the VBLA, in addition to pushing for additional towers at Conn Beach and Sexton Plaza, has recommended to city officials that lifeguard-protected hours be extended to 7 p.m. from March through September.

Next up, though, is the fundraiser for the new lifeguard tower and command center at Humiston Park.

“A new, improved lifeguard tower at Humiston Park will enable lifeguards to see more of the beach, especially in the hotel district, while protecting the lifeguards from weather and some elements of the public who may want to do them harm,” the VBLA wrote in its 2017 annual report. “In an effort to be proactive, VBLA is raising money to build a lifeguard tower.”

Toomsoo said the VBLA is still organizing the fundraiser, but the group is hoping “some local business or somebody on the island” will make a sizable donation to get the project started.

“It would nice if someone wanted to put their name on it,” he said. “One way or another, though, we’ll find a way to get it done.”