South Walton first responders answer an 'unprecedented' number of emergency calls in 2021

Sierra Rains
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — The South Walton Fire District has seen an “unprecedented” increase in emergency response calls this year. 

The numbr of calls processed for fire, emergency medical services and beach safety has increased by 23% compared to the same period between Jan. 1 and June 30 last year, Fire Chief Ryan Crawford said. 

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In June alone, total emergency response activity increased by 15% with a total of 3,015 calls processed. Crawford said calls requiring emergency medical services “significantly increased” at a total of 553 last month. 

Paramedics respond to a shark bite near Grayton Beach State Park on June 17. It was one of an "unprecedented" number of emergency calls by the South Walton Fire District this tourist season.

“When I say that out loud, a lot of times folks gravitate toward ‘Well with COVID-19 last year, everything was kind of shut down,’” Crawford said. “But I’ve gone back and looked at the 2019 numbers, and it’s still a rather remarkable statistical increase for that same period of time.”

Two main factors appear to be contributing to the increased demand on emergency services, he said: A surge in tourism and abnormally rough surf conditions lasting for long periods. 

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The SWFD beach safety division covers close to 26 miles of beach with 15 lifeguard towers stationed at public beach accesses. 

The beach has been drawing tourists to vacation rentals and condominiums, which have been consistently reaching close to maximum capacity, according to the Walton County Tourist Development Council. 

Beachgoers enjoy a sunny afternoon on the beach near the Whale's Tail Beach Bar & Grill on Scenic Gulf Drive in South Walton County. Large crowds and rough surf have contributed to a 'unprecedented" number of emergency calls for the South Walton Fire District.

“They’re between 95% and 96% occupied, which is unusual,” Crawford said. “This is obviously the peak period of time that we see heavy tourism, but that’s a really high number outside of like Fourth of July weekend.”

However, the surf conditions have not been ideal. Roughly half of the month of June consisted of red or double-red flag conditions along the beach.. 

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About 66 of the 122 days — or 54.6% of the 2021 beach safety season from March 1 through June 30 — have been either single or double-red flag conditions. There have been 36 double-red flag days and 30 single-red flag days. 

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen a spring with that many red or double-red flag days,” said Crawford, who added that it has been “remarkably unusual.” 

Emergency crews responded to a shark bite incident near Grayton Beach State Park on June 17.

Lifeguards performed 36 water rescues and 123 public assists, and made 394,091 public contacts in June. 

While not all rescues have been successful, emergency responders have been working hard to meet the increased demand and prevent further loss of life, Crawford said. Two people hospitalized last month after almost drowning in the Gulf of Mexico have made full recoveries. 

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“Our men and women, I’m so proud of them. They work really hard to provide that prompt, professional response anytime somebody’s having their worst day,” Crawford said. “It’s a team effort and we’re meeting those demands, but it’s definitely unprecedented, just the increase we’ve seen this year.”

Magnetic placards have been placed on Walton County vehicles and Waste Management truck to help publicize the beach flag warning system.

Concern about beach safety grew early this tourist season, and Crawford said beach safety personnel have been exploring ways to make “lasting changes” to address some of the concerns and the service demands. 

The county is implementing a number of initiatives to help get beach safety messaging out, including video campaigns, creative placement of information on the beach flag warning system and more. 

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Still, there have been some unique challenges to ensure safety. “Outright defiance” of the beach flag system has been a common occurrence and has hindered efforts to keep people out of harm's way, Crawford said. 

“I think that just comes down to what society has been faced with in general this past year with COVID-19 restrictions,” Crawford said. “The last thing they want to do is come on vacation to the beach and be told that they can’t get in the water.”

A South Walton Fire District crews rescued a person who was trapped in a vehicle following a collision at U.S. Highway 98 and Mack Bayou Road on May 15. More tourists have led to more traffic crashes this year.

Beachgoers are encouraged to swim near a lifeguard and be aware of surf conditions. Current surf conditions can be found at,, or by texting "SAFETY" to 31279. 

Many emergency medical responses this year have also included traffic accidents. The SWFD is reminding the public to always wear a seat belt and follow posted speed limits. 

SWFD Public Information Officer Mackenzie McClintock also stressed that visitors should continue to follow their daily health regimens and take any medication as needed, because that also has contributed to the high number of emergency responses. 

“Bad things happen to people when they’re on vacation, just like they do at home, and we’re just trying to stress, ‘Be mindful of that when you’re on vacation,' ” Crawford said. 

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