Some people describe Melvin Shepard as a two-legged fish. Others call him a water baby. The aquatic coordinator for the city of Orange Beach simply says, “I love my job.” A 12-year veteran with Orange Beach, Shepard reigns over the local surfside safety network. Those colorful flags that fly along the shore each day? He decides which one goes up. He also oversees the city’s lifeguards, organizes children’s swim lessons during the summertime, and reports surf conditions to local officials and media groups. When he finds a few spare minutes, he catches a little pool time. “Part of my job description requires that I swim 1, 000 yards daily, ” he says. “We have to keep in shape.”
WHAT DO THE FLAGS REPRESENT?
The flags are how we keep beachgoers safe. There are five different flags, and each represents a type of surf condition. Green means the waters are calm. Yellow indicates moderate conditions. A red flag tells beachgoers that conditions are hazardous (the surf is 4 feet and up or the waters are rough). A double red flag means the waters are closed – there are storm conditions or surfs are 8 to 10 feet. Lastly, a purple flag means dangerous marine life is in the area – things like Portuguese man-of-war, jellyfish or stingrays.
DID YOU RESCUE ANY SWIMMERS LAST SUMMER?
Before I answer, I want to clarify a couple of terms. Most people use the term “rescue” and think that lifeguards have gone into the water and simply pulled someone to safety. The correct word for that is “assist.” A rescue means the person should have died. Last summer we rescued between 25 and 30 people.
WHAT ACCOUNTS FOR SO MANY ASSISTS AND RESCUES?
Many people don’t pay attention to the flags or, even worse, to the lifeguards. Lifeguards are there to keep you safe. We want families to come to the beach to have a good time, but more importantly, we want them to go home the way they came to the beach – as a family.
WHAT ARE THE REQUIREMENTS TO BECOME A LIFEGUARD WITH ORANGE BEACH?
You must be at least 18 years old and have had 28 hours of training with the Red Cross. To become a lifeguard for beach patrol, you have to have an additional 40 hours of United States Lifesaving Association training. That includes being able to swim 500 meters in less than 10 minutes, as well as passing a written exam with a score of 85 percent. A portion of the training also includes practicing beach rescues.
FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE, HOW DID THE OIL SPILL AFFECT TRAFFIC AT THE BEACH LAST YEAR? WHAT DO YOU EXPECT THIS YEAR?
Initially, people canceled reservations, but we still had plenty of visitors. There were a lot of tournaments going on that brought people out. As for this year, we don’t see any oil on the beach, so we
encourage people to come.
Orange Beach Aquatic Center
4853 S. Wilson Blvd., Orange Beach. 974-7946.
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by Cheryl Nicholls