Lifesaving devices appear on the shore of Oak Island, as the community rallies for safety on the beach

Community members are taking concrete steps to improve beach safety, including people setting up lifeguard stations in front of their homes and organizations seeking to raise money to equip city-approved stations at all 65 beach access points. ‘Oak Island. The move comes as the island experiences four drownings in the first month and half of the season. (Courtesy picture)

OAK ISLAND – Weeks after the fourth tourist of the season drowned on Oak Island, community members are taking concrete steps to increase safety on the beaches.

Island spokesman Mike Emory told the Port City Daily that if funds were provided by local organizations to install lifesaving devices, the city council would likely review its implementation. The opportunity did not take long to present itself.

READ MORE: ‘Four deaths this year is so devastating’: The cost of no lifeguards on Oak Island

Beachgoers may soon see a water rescue station at all 65 public beach accesses, thanks to an initiative brought to the city by the Jack Helbig Memorial Foundation (JHMF).

Last week, Foundation President Melanie Roberts and Executive Director and Founder Kelly Helbig met with City Manager David Kelly, Oak Island Water Rescue (OIWR) Chief Peter Grendze and Police Chief Charles Morris to discuss the station funding. According to Helbig, the proposal was “welcomed” and Roberts said they expect a response from the city early next week.

JHMF has already installed and funded 14 rescue stands on Caswell Beach and five rescue rings on the Southport waterfront in conjunction with Eagle Scout candidate Jackson Enis. Adding them to Oak Island comes as controversy over whether the city should have lifeguards continues.

Lifeguards were once stationed on a section of the island called Long Beach in the early 1990s, before it merged with Yaupon Beach to form Oak Island. Officials say it would be too expensive to cover its 10 miles of beach with current tax limitations.

At the Oak Island council meeting on July 12, Pro Tempore Mayor John Bach suggested the city add warning signs to its “comprehensive messaging plan.” Organizations like JHMF, Southport Rotary Club and OIWR have already installed signs at each beach access to educate the swimming public, each equipped with QR codes that link to a virtual rip current hazard flag. Council did not discuss funding or take a formal vote on adding warning signs.

JHMF donated $1,800 to the signage initiative. Adding salvage canisters to Oak Island’s 65 beach accesses will be a bigger undertaking. Each station will be equipped with red rescue tubes, similar to those already installed at Caswell Beach, and will cost around $250 each.

Total funding could exceed $16,000 and JHMF’s proposal includes a start-up grant of $10,000 for installation costs and an annual maintenance budget of $2,000. Helbig says the community seems keen to fill in the gaps for anything that JHMF or the city wouldn’t cover.

“I’ve seen so much support from the community through social media,” she said. “I’ve had a few people already want to donate and sponsor, which is amazing.”

As details continue to be ironed out, Helbig said a “take a stand” initiative has been discussed as a way for community members to get involved. The idea is that with a donation of $250 or more, a donor will have a plaque affixed to their sponsored post with an inscription or dedication.

JHMF’s proposal wasn’t the only one shared with the city this week.

Bruce Ivers considers Oak Island his home beach even though he lives in St. James Plantation, a community less than 8 km from the island. He, too, reviewed the installation of a water rescue station between 71st and 72nd streets near the St. James community’s private oceanfront beach house in May, before the last three drownings this year. have not taken place.

Ivers said he mentioned the idea to Oak Island Mayor Liz White on May 25, who in turn seemed receptive, aside from a few questions about logistics. After the July 3 drowning, Ivers penned an 11-page proposal in hopes of addressing the mayor’s concerns and further considering the plan.

Last week he met with St. James Mayor Jean Toner, who backed him up, Ivers said. He also sent an official copy of the proposal to White. The city and Mayor White did not respond to a Friday request from the Port City Daily for confirmation of receipt of Ivers’s proposal.

Ivers consulted with members of the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and Oak Island Water Rescue (OIWR) Chief Peter Grendze to design the station, which included two lifebuoys, a rescue tube from 4 feet, a water rescue bag and corresponding signage.

He planned “to build, install, finance and maintain the station”, in the hope that it would increase his chances of being approved. Dropping all costs from local municipalities, Ivers estimated an initial investment of $800, with the intention of “personally accepting all long-term costs.”

His proposal included renderings, a list of 15 people and organizations consulted in its development, and information on various phenomena that may justify the use of a lifesaving device on the beach.

It also included a summary of North Carolina’s General Statutes that limit the liability of “good Samaritans.” Good Samaritan laws are intended to protect those who offer assistance in an emergency, even if the victim is injured or dies despite rescue efforts. Yet liability is a major concern shared by many critics of the installation of lifeguards and lifesaving stations.

Ivers hoped his careful planning would allow for quick approval and is “disappointed that he hasn’t been received more enthusiastically by the city” at this point.

However, local resident Richard Gephart did not approach the town to take matters into his own hands. Beachgoers may have already noticed a new lifesaver station with life ring installed near the NE 39th St. public access.

Gephart of Raleigh owns a beachfront home near the access that he rents out most of the year. Earlier in the season after a drowning, Gephart saw a social media post at beaches that installed lifesaving devices in light of a shortage of national lifeguards.

Resident Richard Gephart set up a lifeline post near his home on Oak Island in response to multiple drownings that occurred on the beach in 2022. (Photo courtesy)

He said he was further coerced after a close friend drowned at Salter Path beach – which also has no lifeguards – as he tried to save his son. Gephart said the terror of the situation has hit closer to home, compounded by the Oak Island drowning incidents and with his own family vacation approaching the week of July 4.

“If I was sitting on the beach and my 10-year-old was in distress, how would I handle that, and how would my wife and I handle that?” Gephart says he wondered. “And I was like, one of us goes in the water regardless, and if there’s a flotation device that’s very visible nearby, the other one is going to get the flotation device.”

So he spent $130 on materials to build a rescue station with a lifeline. Accessibility and visibility were priorities in the installation. The lifeline stand is at the end of a private access in front of his house, approximately 170 feet from the nearby public access. While his property line is technically on a dune, Gephart installed it beyond the dune directly on the public beach without prior permission.

He said pictures once appeared on his social media feed, posted by the OIWR, showing Gephart station and another unauthorized rescue station in Sherill Street.

“While this is a good faith effort, it is important that the devices are of the correct type and size for sea rescue,” the OIWR said. “Likewise, it’s best if they’re part of a city-organized and sanctioned program. The good news is that the city has indicated that it is willing to consider a proposal if funded from outside sources. »

City spokesman Emory said the city has not officially reached out to unauthorized rescue stations at this time.

Gephart said he wondered if he would be pushed back.

“I was hoping I wasn’t doing anything that would be perceived as wrong,” he said. “I was just doing what I could to help.”

As you pass most houses while walking on the beach, visible rip current signs are not displayed for bathers. Signs with QR codes leading to virtual warning flags are displayed only at beach accesses.

In early July, beach patrols began scouring the shoreline, displaying warning flags attached to UTVs. Visitors can also download OKInformation, a text messaging service that will notify mobile subscribers of surfing conditions.

While Gephart said personal responsibility is in addition to drowning prevention, he’s also unsure if that’s enough.

“There’s a difference between ‘realistic’ and what’s ideal,” Gephart said. “Most people who come here from out of town just don’t understand the ocean.”

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Lynn A. Saleh