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What are Florida's rules and regulations when it comes to beach condition warnings?

'The ocean is a dangerous place no matter what, even if the water is completely flat,' said Martin County's Ocean Rescue Chief
Rip current sign on Hutchinson Island
Posted at 7:31 PM, Jun 21, 2024

MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. — The tragedy in the ocean Thursday, when two people got caught in a rip current near Stuart Beach and later died, had us curious about Florida's rules and regulations when it comes to beach condition warnings.

When you arrive at a public beach access point, you are likely to see the signs that explain the beach condition flags and what they mean. You may also see signs explaining what to do if you are caught in a rip current.

We've learned those signs are distributed through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. State and local governments can request the signs, and they must be placed in public access areas. The beach flags provide general warnings about overall surf conditions and do not specifically advise the public of the presence of rip currents, the FDEP said.

Florida law says the state's warning flag program is open to any government with jurisdiction over a public beach along the coast, regardless of whether it has lifeguards. It is not required, however.

Florida law also says, "Due to the inherent danger of constantly changing surf and other naturally occurring conditions along Florida’s coast, the state, state agencies, local and regional government entities or authorities, and their individual employees and agents, shall not be held liable for any injury or loss of life caused by changing surf and other naturally occurring conditions along coastal areas, whether or not uniform warning and safety flags or notification signs developed by the department are displayed or posted."

Ian Montgelas is the Martin County Ocean Rescue Chief. In regard to Thursday's incident, which happened on an unguarded portion of the beach near condos with private beach access, he said, "Our lifeguards did spot those individuals go in the water before the 911 calls came in and as they were responding to the area to check on the individuals that's when the 911 call came in and from there it progressed."

Brian Warter, 51, and Erica Wishart, 48, drowned at Stuart Beach on June 20, 2024.

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They were in the water hundreds of yards away from the closest lifeguard stand, which was flying the red flag, a warning of high surf and strong currents. Montgelas says these rough conditions are unusual for this time of year and may catch both locals and tourists off guard.

"Things can happen really rapidly in a situation like that, June is one of those months that you don't usually see conditions like this, it is pretty rare," he said.

"The ocean is a dangerous place no matter what, even if the water is completely flat," the Ocean Rescue Chief said. He adds it's another reason why you should always try to swim at a guarded beach where lifeguards can get to you faster if there is an emergency. Montgelas said rip currents are stronger during low tide.

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Martin County posts ocean condition information on its website, including locations of lifeguard stands and web cameras.

Syndey Launay lives in Martin County and loves to surf. She was at the beach Thursday when she saw all of the commotion.

"All of a sudden all the lifeguards started coming out and they were waving, it was scary to see all that stuff happen," she said. "I cannot imagine them being able to see the flags from down there."

She'd like to see more flags spread out across the beach to warn about dangerous conditions.

"Having the flags stretched down to the other end of the beach, it would just be safer so we wouldn't have this happen again," she said.

Her friend Grace Lykins agreed.

"Yesterday really shook me up seeing their bodies get dragged out of the water and they were lifeless and today I knew I was going to come back out surfing so I got a whistle on my board," she said. "It may not do much but it could do something, get someone's attention."