Longform

Drownings Rise in Miami Beach as Lifeguards Demand More Help

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Reynolds vigorously denies that lifeguards lack equipment or that staffing issues affect public safety. He also says tower locations are up to city officials, not him. "There are going to be after-hours drownings, and there are going to be unguarded areas that people drown in. It's unfortunate, and I am really sad about that, but those are things that are pretty much beyond my control," he says. "We could always do better with more resources... but when it comes to utilizing what we have, I think we do an excellent job."

The simplest answer is more towers, more lifeguards, and longer hours. But all of that costs money.

In fact, despite record-high resort tax revenues and booming hotel construction, the city is considering cutting — not boosting — the number of lifeguards. Among the "potential service reduction alternatives" attached to the city's 2014 budget are two suggestions: making lifeguard hours 9 to 5 year-round and replacing 20 full-time lifeguards with part-timers.

Some lifeguards suspect their superiors have been encouraged by city officials to under­spend. This year, Ocean Rescue has a budget of around $10 million (compared to $62 million for the Fire Department). Any leftover money goes into the city's general fund. Reynolds denies he's under pressure to save and says it's a good thing his department comes in under budget. "The idea is not to waste the city's money."

The politics are of little importance to the public, whether locals who want to feel safe during their morning swim or tourists who just want to party. And although more towers and lifeguards in Miami Beach would likely save dozens of lives for years to come, they won't bring back the 15 people who have drowned in the past two years.

And they won't bring back Dillon Charles. He never woke up next to his friend after they were pulled from the water by cabana boys. She only found out he was dead later that night when she checked out of the hospital herself. She survived, but her nightmare has yet to end.

"I have really bad anxiety about all this," she says. "I am in therapy because of what happened." Some of her friend's family members blamed her for his death. Sometimes she does too. Other times, she blames the city for leaving half a mile of beach unguarded.

"There should have been signs that said 'No Swimming' or people whistling to come back toward shore," she says. "When you're at the beach, you need a lifeguard. Lifeguards save lives."

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.