As Volusia County’s beaches welcome spring break, bike week and summer crowds, Chief Andrew Ethridge is the epitome of calm professionalism. Serving as the director of Volusia County’s Beach Safety Division, his top priority is ensuring his team is focused on the safety of the 11 million visitors to the world’s most famous beach.
As a member of the Volusia County Beach Safety Ocean Rescue Division (VCBS), there are times when someone’s life is literally in your hands. It’s a responsibility agency members take seriously, as noted in a report to the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement (CFA) recommending VCBS’s re-accreditation as a top-tier ‘Excelsior’ status agency.
“Volusia County Beach Safety is likely one of the most unique agencies in the country. The members of this agency are all certified in three different, and some might say disparate, disciplines: emergency medical technician, open water lifeguard and law enforcement officer. It takes a special person with total dedication to perform all three of these functions and all three on a daily basis.”
“We have about 225-300 employees total,” said VCBS Deputy Chief Tamra Malphurs. “Seventy-five are full-time, 69 are certified emergency medical technicians and 58 of those are sworn police officers; therefore, we handle all enforcement on the beach. Some of our crimes include alcohol violations, disorderly intoxication, traffic infractions, animal violations, disturbances and theft.”
“We try and fill those ranks because that’s what it takes to put 100 lifeguards out there every day in the summer,” said Ethridge of the seasonal positions. “Forty-seven miles, 10 to 11 million visitors and we’re a year-round operation. A lot of times, people don’t understand what we do and how extensive our operation is.”
“We consistently track performance metrics across all aspects of our operation,” he said. “Last year, we responded to nearly 65,000 calls for service, had over 35,000 preventative lifeguard actions and rescued 2,951 people from the ocean; 88% of those were due to rip currents,” he said.
Serving the public while maximizing the $9,286,206 budget, VCBS has worked closely with county staff to implement an expanded network of beach cameras and enhance the visitor experience with a state-of-the-art beaches mobile app, providing users with the latest information ranging from beach access and closures, to beach driving, daily safety reports and more.
Tying into the agency’s rigorous standards of excellence, Ethridge and his team frequently collaborate with organizations like the United States Lifesaving Association, hosting the USLA National Championships in 2015 and 2017, while working closely with other agencies like Halifax Health to help train junior lifeguards and the public on water safety.
The VCBS team envisions a future facility in Volusia County dedicated to water safety, training and continuing education.
“I want to expand our influence on water safety, community involvement and drowning prevention,” said Ethridge, discussing statistics.
“We’re the experts in water safety. We’re the best in the business. We should be the people they come to to prevent drowning and water accidents.”
While shark bites near the New Smyrna Beach jetty attract attention, Deputy Chief Malphurs says there are bigger fish to fry when it comes to beach safety.
“We had 16 shark bites last year with zero fatalities, but we rescue about 3,000 people from rip currents each year and usually have about 5-6 drownings; these are usually in unguarded areas. This is why it is so important to swim in front of a lifeguard,” she said, looking ahead to National Beach Safety Week’s campaign “Swim Near A Lifeguard,” launching statewide May 23-30.
“We try to do a lot of outreach wherever we can in the community. The ultimate goal is drowning prevention,” said Ethridge.
For more information, visit volusia.org/beach or call 386-239-6414.