(June 29, 2018) Have you ever wondered why the lifeguards make people leave the beach when it is just thundering or a little bit of lightning, or perhaps it might appear to be a nice sunny day?
To understand the criteria that the Ocean City Beach Patrol uses before clearing the beach for your safety you must understand the technology that is available for early warning of severe weather as well as the true hazards associated with lightning, especially as it relates to the beach environment.
The Ocean City Beach Patrol is in constant contact with the weather service and is aware of the current weather situation at all times. Recent developments in lightning detection and monitoring technologies give us more accurate and timely information on potentially dangerous developing cloud-to-ground lightning and we use this information to help assure you and your family’s safety.
With the launch of NOAA’s most advanced weather satellites ever developed (GOES-R and GOES-S), last year and earlier this year, real-time lightning detection is more accurate and readily available than ever and will assist us in providing early warning of these deadly events.
The beach is probably one of the worst places to be when lightning is near. Most people know that being in the water is dangerous, but they feel a bit safer on the beach. This is a dangerous assumption.
In fact, all documented cases of lightning strikes in Ocean City have been when people were on the beach and lightning was still in the area. So please follow the directions of the lifeguards when they clear the beach due to storm activity.
The beach patrol’s operations center is monitoring the current weather as well as being alert to situations where there is a sudden change in weather patterns that will potentially impact our area.
Many times weather conditions vary from one end of Ocean City to the other. I have seen it many times to be sunny and mild in the south by the Boardwalk and lightning and showers just nine miles north.
There are many documented cases throughout the country of people being hit by lightning while the sun is shining (called a bolt from the blue). The beach patrol is not only in constant contact with the weather service, but we have constant communication with each other up and down the beach as well.
The guards know when lightning has been spotted in an area and will alert our duty officer in the beach patrol’s operations center.
The beach patrol, like other modern emergency services, relies on two-way radio systems as well as semaphore and a whistle system. The beach patrol’s primary concern is your safety and we will clear the beaches if we feel you are not safe.
While vacationing on the beach in Ocean City you may or may not notice the lifeguards communicating with each other, but please heed their warnings and leave the beach if asked to do so, even if you do not see lightning.
Due to constant monitoring of the weather and their communication systems, they are aware of dangers that you might not be able to see. A beach is listed as one of the most vulnerable places to be during an electrical storm, according to weather researchers.
The Ocean City Beach Patrol will clear the beach if lightning is spotted in the area. After making sure all beach patrons have been warned (whether or not they heed our warning and leave) lifeguards then take cover to the back of the beach for their safety.
No one is permitted back on the beach until there has been no lightning for 30 minutes. Beach patrol supervisors will then patrol the beach in covered vehicles to make sure that everyone is staying off the beach.
You would be amazed at how many beach patrons want to argue or give excuses why they are out on the beach when there is visible lightning.
Several years ago, shortly after we cleared the beach due to lightning in the area and after the last stragglers left the beach, one of our guard stands on 127th Street was struck by lightning. This is concrete evidence of the need to heed the lifeguards’ orders to get off the beach immediately (do not even take time to pack up) when lightning is nearby.
The lightning strike during this brief but powerful thunderstorm resulted in splintering and burning the stand’s wood, and sending sparks and nails shooting outward. The people watching from nearby balconies got to witness the danger of lightning first hand.
However, there are some people who still don’t realize the dangers. It is very unsettling to try to reason with people that their life is in danger. I realize they might not have seen lightning, but we are only trying to do our job and keep everyone safe.
We have over 100 lifeguards scanning the beach and we are in close contact with weather communications. Thirty minutes is not too long to wait to catch that wave and actually live to tell about it.
Captain Butch Arbin has been with the beach patrol for 46 years. With that experience he has been involved with 10 documented and confirmed lightning strikes involving people.
The worst case occurred about 35 years ago in the area of North Division Street when a group of individuals were warned to leave the beach but instead they insisted on staying and huddled under their umbrella.
Unfortunately for them and their loved ones at home it was the last bad decision they would ever make. A single bolt of lightning killed all four instantly. The surf rescue technicians left the safety of the buildings where they had retreated for cover and performed lifesaving measures; the end result was four fatalities.
Stories like this are scary. Yet, still we get concerns from beach patrons about sharks and questions like, “Is it safe to be in the ocean?” But lightning is a real and present danger that is emphasized by the following statistics: In a recent 12-year period Maryland ranked 25th in lightning deaths with an average of over one per year, while in that same period there were no incidents involving sharks.
In fact, Maryland has never even had one documented shark attack in the whole history of the state.
There is some confusion about where is the most dangerous place to be during a storm since our surf rescue technicians clear the water first. This isn’t because it is more dangerous in the water but rather because it takes far more time for a person in the water to exit and then gather their belongings before leaving the beach.
As your surf rescue technician is informed of an approaching storm they will signal everyone out of the ocean and inform them of the situation. As soon as they see visible lightning they will signal everyone on “their” beach to quickly take cover off the beach.
The surf rescue technician will then assure that everyone they are responsible for has been warned of the dangerous situation and then they too will quickly seek safety off the beach. Your surf rescue technician does not go off duty but finds a safe location just off the beach while continuing to warn people to stay off the beach until they receive the “All clear.”
Once the “All clear” is given they will return to their post and you can return to your beach activities.
Remember… “When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors.” This is for your safety.
Ocean City is famous for its clean, safe and fun beach and ocean, and that is what brings you here and keeps you coming back. However, when conditions make it unsafe to be on the beach or in the ocean, the beach patrol is committed to providing for you and your family’s safety so that you can return another day.
Enjoy the beach but please do so in a safe manner and listen to the lifeguard on duty in all matters. One thing that you can always do to remain safe is talk to your lifeguard about current beach conditions each day and limit beach activity to a time when lifeguards are on duty.
To get current information about the beach patrol as well as daily stats and current beach conditions, you can follow the beach patrol on Twitter, Instagram or “like us” on the Official OCBP Facebook page.
If interested in working as part of this exciting organization talk to your surf rescue technician (lifeguard) or visit our website, www.ococean.com/ocbp. We can’t wait to be a part of your fun experiences in Ocean City, because we are glad you are here, and always remember to “Keep your feet in the sand until the lifeguard’s in the stand!”