Who Will Pay for Lifeguards?

Sundae Horn

NPS may contract out lifeguards and ask Ocracoke to foot (some of) the bill.

Ocracoke faces the possibility of cost-sharing with the Park Service to provide seven-days-a-week lifeguard coverage from Memorial Day to Labor Day this season.

Lonely without its lifeguards.
Lonely without its lifeguards.

“Contracting for lifeguards is an avenue we are pursuing,” said Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s superintendent Barclay Trimble in a phone interview today.

Trimble said he is working on putting the job out for bids sometime next week. He has talked to at least one private company to get some ballpark figures for contracted services.

“$85,000 is a number that’s been floating around,” he said. “It was a possible bid option we received, but it’s not a firm number."

That estimated amount would cover lifeguards at all three beaches (Coquina, Buxton, and Ocracoke) for five days a week, with an anticipated start date of Memorial Day weekend.

Hiring lifeguards as NPS employees for the Seashore’s three guarded beaches “won’t happen,” Trimble said. “It’s too late for our hiring process – we are far past the deadline to hire our own.”

The proposal for contract lifeguards will go out with the parameters of dates and hours for lifeguard duty. Trimble says he won’t know until the bids start coming in whether or not NPS can pay for a full week of coverage.

If not, it will be up to the local communities to pay for the difference if they want more fulltime protection at the beach.

Trimble said that the company he talked to gave him a ballpark figure of $10,000 for Ocracoke to cover two days of lifeguards.

At last week’s Occupancy Tax Board meeting, the board carried a motion to appropriate those funds if necessary.

“I’d like to see the commissioners approve the $10,000 with the stipulation that we don’t want to spend it,” said Hyde County manager Bill Rich. “But we also don’t want to see just five days of lifeguards. That doesn’t make any sense.”

Bill said that if the county were to help with funding lifeguards, they would want to give the money to the Park Service.

Trimble says it’s too late for that.

“The money wouldn’t come to us,” he said. “If the community wants to extend the days, then Ocracoke Civic and Business or Hyde County would need to go directly to the contracting entity and set up their own contract for lifeguard services for the days not covered by us.”

Trimble expects it to be a few weeks before bids start coming in and further decisions will be made.   

I asked Trimble if he’d been receiving the emails from Ocracoke Civic and Business Association’s online petition, and he said yes. He’s also heard from the Dare County manager, gotten “a few” emails from Seashore residents and visitors, and been in contact with Congressman Walter Jones’s office.

When I interviewed Trimble for my March 8th article he was adamant that the Seashore did not have any money for lifeguards this year. He reiterated that position in a conference call at the March 12th OCBA meeting, stating that NPS had housing and equipment available if OCBA had the money to hire lifeguards. 

At the meeting, OCBA members urged him to find the money in the budget, perhaps in the ORV permit funds. Trimble said that money goes into beach access funding. “That $2 million is not available,” he said. “I can’t touch it.” He also added that although lifeguards aren’t in the ORV permit budget, perhaps that could be amended down the line.

“I’m more than happy to talk about cost-sharing,” he said then, but did not mention contracted lifeguards or $10,000. He was asking for the whole enchilada to cover lifeguards on Ocracoke.

At the meeting, Trimble heard from Ocracoke residents and business owners about how disappointed they were in his budget decisions.

“How did you come to the decision that lifeguards are less important than any other service you provide?” asked Bill Jones. “The number of visitors who interact with lifeguards is far greater than the number of visitors who interact with interpretive rangers. 

Dick Jacoby brought up his concern about firefighters going in the water. As president of Ocracoke Fire and Protection Association and a member of Ocracoke VFD, Dick reported that OVFD members have no ocean rescue training and no equipment. But they are paged by the county and respond to beach emergencies.

Photo sent to us by Leonard Conover. Is this an acceptable substitute?
Photo sent to us by Leonard Conover. Is this an acceptable substitute?

“My guys are not going to hesitate to go into the water,” Dick said. “That’s putting them at risk.” 

Trimble assured the OCBA members that NPS law enforcement rangers would respond to emergencies and would indeed go into the water to rescue swimmers, even if it means taking off their guns and bullet-proof vests to do it. He also suggested that throw rings are an option at the beach and that Hatteras Village was considering them.

And in an epic moment of buck-passing, Trimble reminded the OCBA crowd that the ocean is not actually in the National Park Service’s jurisdiction.

“State waters are where drownings will occur,” he said. “We’re not mandated to protect those waters.”

So – what happened between March 12th (when no money was available for lifeguards) and March 26th (when Trimble might possibly find some cash in the budget for part-time lifeguards)?

“Most conversations about the lifeguards came after your article,” he told me. (Woo-Woo!)

My March 8th article, which was followed up by the OCBA petition posted on March 14th, brought the response Trimble said he’d been waiting for.

“That’s actually what we were hoping would happen early on,” he said. “That’s why we put the press release out in November.”

All babies deserve lifeguards! These two are enjoying the lifeguard beach c. 2007.
All babies deserve lifeguards! These two are enjoying the lifeguard beach c. 2007.
Awww, little Beatrice and Mariah. Weren't they cute?

Trimble said he wanted to pursue the possibility of cost-sharing from the beginning.

“I never intended to blindside the public,” he said. “I didn’t want to wait until spring to announce that there wouldn’t be lifeguards.” 

Trimble says that after the November press release that he “got a letter from Ocracoke’s Occupancy Tax Board in December or January. I wrote back to them, and never heard back,” he said. “The money never came, so now it’s too late to hire lifeguards for this year, and we are looking at contracting them.”

When the bids come in, Trimble will need to make more decisions about spending. Whatever money he does use for lifeguards will come out of his appropriated budget, and take away from other programs he wanted to fund.

“We really don’t know yet what we’re going to be able to do,” he said. 



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