Surf rescue program hits the cutting room floor in Ocean Shores


The decision to cut city funding from the Ocean Shores Surf Rescue team has created a wave of worry that was just beginning to surface last week.

Mayor Crystal Dingler disclosed her decision to cut the Surf Rescue funding during the City Council study session and later at the City Council’s regular meeting, both on Jan. 14, more than two weeks after the last-minute budget decision.

“It was really with a heavy heart that we de-activated the Surf Rescue group,” Dingler said. “The buck stops here. It was a tough decision.”

The move eliminated $52,500 in funding for the city’s 10-person team, which now is in the process of being deactivated.

Dingler said the money was part of $147,000 that had to be trimmed from an already lean but balanced budget by a directive to cut an additional 2.5 percent from all departments. There was no other choice, the mayor said, except to trim positions from the Emergency Medical Services and Police staff.

“I have people already working part time who should have full-time jobs and have full-time work and are just having to decide what they can do,” Dingler said.

She added that the Surf Rescue cuts seemed the “lesser of two evils” in comparing it to further employee cuts.

‘ESSENTIAL SERVICE’

Holly Plackett, the former Chamber of Commerce co-director, questioned the move at last week’s council sessions.

“This is an essential city service,” she said, urging the council to restore the money from a special council fund. Plackett and her husband Mark recently headed an economic development committee formed by the mayor. The committee’s report will soon be rolled out before the city Planning Commission. Having a trained Surf Rescue team, Plackett contends, provides security for tourists and others who come to use the Ocean Shores beaches.

“We really affirm that tourism is our No. 1 industry here, and we cannot successfully market ourselves as a family destination without that kind of back-up safety,” Plackett said in an interview the day after the council addressed the issue, but took no action to restore the money.

Plackett said citizens only became aware the money had been cut after they saw a cover letter from Dingler that accompanied the final budget for 2013.

An attempt by Councilman John Lynn to restore the money by using the council’s discretionary fund was voted down, largely because it was seen as a vote to spend money out of reserves after members had just approved the new EMS utility fee, which was said to be a way to build back the city’s reserve fund.

City Finance Director Steve Ensley told the council it did have the authority to spend the money, but it would require a standing document to amend the 2013 budget.

“You would start spending the money that you said we were not going to spend,” Ensley told the council before the proposal was voted down 5-1, with only Lynn voting for it.

Councilman Randy Scott said he was in favor of more thorough review process, including taking formal public comment, followed by council action.

“I think it’s extremely important to get it back in,” Lynn said.

“This is a very important subject to the community,” he added.

Councilman Ed Engel, who has questioned the Surf Rescue funding in the past said he, too, would rather let more citizens have an opportunity to address the issue. But his amendment to move the issue until the next council agenda failed for lack of a second at the last council meeting. Plackett said the “onus right now is on the City Council to fund that.”

When the mayor surveyed the local population last summer about what was important in Ocean Shores, Plackett noted, emergency medical services was the No. 1 issue.

“This is really an extension of EMS,” she said of Surf Rescue.

EVENT CONCERN

Lynda Miller, president of Ocean Shores ACT (Action Committee for Tourism), sounded a dire plea to restore the funds. ACT organizes the annual Sand and Sawdust Festival in June and the Labor Day Picnic in September.

Losing the Surf Rescue team renders the beach unsafe, Miller told the council. “Do you think that people will want to visit a beach town when you cannot safely use the beach?” Miller asked. “Will they want to build or buy in a beach community without a safe beach? This town has had a reputation for safety for residents or visitors. That reputation will be gone with the first fatality.”

That reputation has been built up, she continued, with 24 years of experience provided by the local Surf Rescue team and its members, some of whom lost their lives in rescues. Miller noted she would be meeting with the event attorney and sponsor about the Surf Rescue issue.

“As the event coordinator for an event that sees thousands of people on the beach, half under the age of 12, I am extremely worried about the legal, moral and ethical advisability of putting on such an event,” Miller said.

Plackett said the action to deactivate the team could easily be changed.

“We cannot make it unsafe to be on our beach in our beach community,” she said, contending the city can no longer promote itself as a “valued family vacation destination.”

“Surly, those of you on our council who are involved in a business here in Ocean Shores can see the negative results of this decision,” Plackett said.

RESCUE HISTORY

The Ocean Shores Police Department Surf Rescue Team was founded in July 1989, with current Police Chief Mike Styner as one of its first trainees.

At that time, the only experienced help available was the Coast Guard at Westport. However, the Coast Guard’s response time to the beach at Ocean Shores was over half an hour, and the Coast Guard is not equipped for rescues in the surf extremely close to shore.

Since its formation, there have been 237 Surf Rescue calls for assistance, and 118 people have been rescued, with 15 drownings that included two members of the Surf Rescue team: Lt. Jim Davis in 1998 and Capt. Rob McLaughlin in 2006.

Over the years, the team has accepted the responsibility of protecting a 13-mile stretch of beach, the North jetty area at the south end of the city and the east side of the city, which includes a large portion of Grays Harbor. The team also has responded to fresh-water rescues within the city limits on its lakes and canal system.

As a result of the city budget move, Styner said he currently is in the process of deactivating the team, which includes putting up additional warning signs about rip currents and lack of lifeguards at all the Ocean Shores main beach approaches.

The chief worries that he will also have to “generate a policy that precludes my people from going into the water” in the event of a rescue, for safety reasons alone. “Not a moment of the day goes by where I don’t think about this dilemma,” Styner said in a meeting with Dingler to talk about the repercussions of losing Surf Rescue. Both Dingler and Styner said any move to restore funding now must come from the Council or the public.

Dingler noted the team was only deactivated, with the members still trained in rescues. “So it can be re-activated at any time,” she said.