tampabay.com

Safety ruling may hit local beaches

The results of a Miami Beach drowning case could bring changes to Pinellas' shores in the form of signs and lifeguards.

By PAUL SWIDER
Published March 26, 2005


Pinellas beach communities are re-examining their safety policies in light of a Florida Supreme Court ruling that said cities may bear some responsibility for swimmers' safety.

"I'm not sure how it will affect us," St. Pete Beach Mayor Ward Friszolowski said of the decision concerning two Miami Beach drownings.

The court said that when cities provide facilities to make a beach attractive to swimmers, the cities also bear responsibility for those swimmers' safety.

In the Miami Beach case, a swimmer and her attempted rescuer drowned fighting a rip current.

The court indicated that Miami Beach made its beach attractive enough to attract swimmers, with showers and concessions, but provided no lifeguards or warning of possible dangers. A jury still must decide whether the city is liable for the two swimmers' deaths.

"I grew up on the Atlantic coast and the rip tides are tough there, but we don't have those kinds of issues here," said Ralph Stone, city manager for Treasure Island. The ruling would seem to include not only dangers such as rip currents but also rocks or even dangerous animals.

Since the 1997 drownings in the Miami Beach case, that city hired a lifeguard for the beach.

But the court's ruling may only require warnings.

Many beaches in the Pinellas area warn of stingrays but do not necessarily tell swimmers there are no lifeguards present, officials say.

St. Pete Beach has such signs on Upham Beach, according to police Chief David Romine, because of incidents in which people have drifted onto rocks or been caught in currents. He said the rest of the city's beaches don't carry such markings.

Romine said state officials have discussed using an international system of color-coded flags to warn of dangers, but that such a system was intended for areas without lifeguards.

"I know on Clearwater Beach we encourage people to swim but we also caution them by using our flag system," said Joe Lain, vice president of the Florida Beach Patrol Chiefs Association. "We want people to swim in front of a lifeguard. There's no substitute for lifeguards."

In addition to eight lifeguard stations, four of which are staffed year round, Clearwater Beach has used a flag warning system for about 10 years, said Lain.

A yellow flag means caution. A purple flag means dangerous marine life in the area. A green flag means low risk. And a red flag means stop, no swimming. Posted signs tell beachgoers what each color means.

In Madeira Beach, there are some "No Lifeguard" signs but no one knows if they are enough.

"We have those signs, but I don't know how frequently they are placed," said City Commissioner Leonard Piotti. "I'm not sure if what we have satisfies the issue."

Most cities in this area are having their legal staffs review the decision to see what action they may need to take.

"Where would it end?" asked Treasure Island Commissioner Alan Bildz. "Do you have to warn people that there might be sharks in the water or that they could be hit by lightning?"

Staff writer Megan Scott contributed to this report.