Guarding lives

Folly Beach County Park lifeguard Michael Reynolds keeps a close eye on beachgoers as they swim Wednesday. Charleston County parks chief Tom O'Rourke plans to ask the County Council for help in hiring more lifeguards.

Charleston County may expand dramatically the number of lifeguards stationed on its beaches next summer after a recent rash of drownings and surf rescues.

County Park and Recreation Commission Director Tom O'Rourke said Wednesday he hopes to spend about $300,000 more next summer to increase the number of lifeguards and to patrol areas beyond the county's three beach parks.

O'Rourke said his frustration over these preventable deaths has been building for years, and he plans to appear before Charleston County Council next week to discuss what to do. He wants to expand the lifeguard areas by about 50 percent next year and by similar amounts in the next two years.

"I'm personally tired of sitting here saying, 'At least it didn't happen in our park,' " he said. "It's still a deceased person. It's still our larger responsibility."

O'Rourke said the commission has some money available to begin hiring and training more lifeguards next spring so they can hit the beaches.

He plans to ask County Council if it would consider providing additional support, possibly in the form of a small property tax increase or a chunk of hotel tax revenue.

There is precedent for PRC lifeguards working areas beyond a county park.

Three years ago, O'Rourke and Folly Beach Mayor Carl Beckmann Jr. hatched a plan to station about a half-dozen lifeguards a few blocks on either side of the Folly Beach Fishing Pier.

"As far as the city is concerned, it's a big plus. It's not costing the city a dime," Beckmann said, adding that a growing number of visitors congregate on this stretch of beach because it is guarded.

"Based on what I've seen and what I've heard," he said, "I know they're doing a lot of good being there."

Currently, central Folly and the three county parks on Folly Beach, Isle of Palms and Kiawah Island are the only areas on the county's coast with regular lifeguards.

But the spate of drownings is not limited to local beaches. Last month, an 18-month-old toddler drowned in a backyard pool in Ladson, a 6-year-old drowned in North Charleston and a 40-year-old Cross man succumbed to the currents of the Ashley River while crabbing beneath the North Bridge.

O'Rourke said he wants the new effort to include swimming lessons and water safety. He said he would like to start using the county's three water parks, Whirlin' Waters, Splash Zone and Splash Island, for swimming classes.

"We want to do the work beforehand so we don't have to make that rescue," he said, likening it to firefighters who try to prevent fires instead of simply putting them out.

The beach safety crisis appeared to peak last week, as the body of Tara Lynn McAlister of Goose Creek was found on Folly Beach, Anna Finkelstein of New York disappeared after fighting a powerful current near Breach Inlet on Sullivan's Island, and three other swimmers were rescued from Sullivan's.

O'Rourke said he would be interested in putting lifeguards on Sullivan's as well as expanding their current territory on other islands. He said he would be willing to work with each area on the specifics such as hours, locations and other details.

Ultimately, if the Park and Recreation Commission gets the support it needs, O'Rourke said the expanded patrols and education efforts could cost about $1 million more per year. The exact nature of the program will depend on what kind of support the commission can get.

Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said council's ultimate decision on whether to help would be made only after all the facts and figures are known. "Anything that's going to improve public safety, we would be glad to take a look at it."

O'Rourke said he would like it if there eventually were lifeguards on every stretch of the county's beaches, "but we have to bite off the amount we can chew and then take the next step and the next step."

"It's our problem," he said, "and we're going to solve it."