Emerald Coast Fitness Foundation and FPL join forces to prevent rip current tragedies
August 22, 2023
Destin Beach Safety Lt. Harrison Smith (left) shows brothers Mason Whitehead (center) and Austin Whitehead (right), from Colorado, how to recognize and escape a rip current, using a rubber duck in the rip current model.

When Lisa Cooley's family visited her from Colorado in July, she knew that safety had to come first before beach fun. She was focused on ensuring that her grandchildren were aware of a hidden yet deadly danger – rip currents – lurking in the emerald waters of Destin's beaches. 

They started their day at Taj Renee Community Aquatic Center in Destin, where Emerald Coast Fitness Foundation (ECFF) and Destin Beach Safety provide free, beach safety sessions that allowed the family a hands-on experience interacting with a tabletop-sized, rip current model using a tiny rubber duck as the swimmer in peril.

“Our grandsons are old enough now to swim without us, so we’re trying to teach them about rip currents, so they’ll be safe on their own,” Cooley of Destin said.

The rip current model, she said, gave them hands-on interaction of repeatedly putting the duck in the current to help them understand how the current flows through the sandbar and how they can go with that flow and swim out of the current, instead of fighting against it.

As of July 26 this year, 65 swimmers lost their lives to rip currents and high surf at beaches across the US, including 15 in the Florida Panhandle. These deadly, hard-to-spot currents of fast-moving water prove fatal to those who don't understand how to escape them, and fighting against them is not recommended.

The rip current model and beach safety program was made possible by a collaboration between ECFF; Diane Fraser, director of the Emerald Coast Science Center; and science display creator, Jeff Wheat, with funding from Florida Power & Light Company (FPL).

Two (FPL) grants totaling $6,500, allowed ECFF to purchase three portable simulators for the foundation’s safety presentations and two more for the Emerald Coast Science Center, where one will be featured in a permanent exhibit. Donation dollars are also being used for educational signs displayed prominently at ECFF’s three aquatic centers.

  • The donations — $5,000 grant from FPL, through the NextEra Energy Foundation, awarded in April, and $1,500 from Community Connectors, an FPL Northwest Florida employee-driven giving, are allowing ECFF to expand their safety program to their Crestview pool.

Wendy Rudman, ECFF community outreach coordinator, conceived the idea of a revolutionary, hands-on tool to educate people on the dangers of rip currents, so she and others could create a safer beach experience. Rudman reported that over 2,000 individuals have been reached by the new water safety simulator used at events since mid-May.

“I’ve been teaching water safety for years, and when we demonstrate how rip currents work with the simulator, it makes the concept of a rip current more tangible,” Rudman said. “We see that light bulb go off in their heads where they understand, finally, what they’ve been warned about for years. Thanks to FPL's support, the team was able to create a realistic tool that enhances water safety education.”

ECFF board president, Kevin Leibold, noted the FPL donation was crucial to their mission. “It’s important to us as ambassadors of swimming and water safety to help educate our swimmers and folks coming to our beaches from out of town.”

Bernard Johnson, FPL external affairs manager for Walton and Okaloosa, is a big supporter of ECFF’s mission because he nearly drowned in a rip current while swimming off Southern California coast as a teenager.

“Safety for our employees and customers is primary focus at FPL,” said Johnson. “We are grateful for organizations like Emerald Coast Fitness Foundation for their innovative approach to rip current safety. The rip current simulator provides a great visual of what it takes to be safe, so our beach visitors will be able to swim another day.”

Want to attend a ECFF beach safety session?

When and Where

  • 1 p.m., on Saturdays
  • Taj Renee Community Aquatic Center
  • 4345 Commons Drive W, Destin, Fla., 32541 

Group water safety demonstrations can be scheduled by calling Wendy Rudman at 850-598-0176.