Beaches and Risk
Years back I climbed up the pyramids in Tical, Guatamala. It was really steep and the steps were not designed for big American feet. I reached the top and looked out from a view above the rainforest canopy in awe. Then I looked down and realized there were no handrails. I was shocked. In the US this just wouldn’t happen. There would be railings and arrangements for disabled people and cable cars so no one collapsed on the way up.
We’re Americans. We live in a country with quite a few resources. A country that has city, state, and federal governments that do all kinds of things that allow us the illusion of complete safety. We rarely see holes in the sidewalks or stairs without railings. Signs are everywhere reminding us how to stay safe. “Caution Drop Off”. Plastic bags can suffocate you. Apple filling is hot.
All of these precautions are aimed at one thing. Minimizing risk. Not eliminating risk, but minimizing risk. The concept is “layers of protection”. It starts with each of us watching out for our own safety, then the safety of loved ones or companions. Then there are the railings, signs, metal detectors, airbags, child proof caps, security checks, health codes, etc.
It works almost too well. We forget that all of these layers of protection, while reducing risk, do not guarantee that we’ll be totally safe. We forget that there is no guarantee because we’re constantly inundated. We look for blame when accidents happen (“Was he wearing his seatbelt?”). And then we go to the beach.
Of all places the ocean is still the Wild Wild West. We do a great job of mitigating the risk considering the ocean is something that can’t be controlled. We train our lifeguards beyond all standards and expectations. We maintain over 300 safety signs up and down the beach. And we have layers upon layers of supervisors, vehicles, and watchers for the watchers. And at beaches guarded by United States Lifesaving Association lifeguards (like ours) your chances of drowning in a guarded area are 1 in 18 million. But, ultimately, we are only an additional layer of protection. We can’t guarantee safety, only mitigate risk.
There was a terrible, terrible tragedy last Saturday night. It was extremely rough and we held the guards late due to the abnormally large surf, strong currents, and crowds. The lifeguard at 24th called in that there was a swimmer out too far. The swimmer was past the waist deep we recommend for red flag days, but he was neither past the legal swimming limit nor was he in between the “no swimming” signs and the rock groin. And he was not struggling. The man did nothing wrong and our guard not only did nothing wrong, but was being more proactive than could be expected. But the man slipped underwater within just a few seconds without warning and died.
My heart goes out to both the family and our staff who are struggling to come to terms with this.