Tents Become Safety Issue at Myrtle Beach

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June 29, 2010 by   - () Leave a Comment

Rows of square tents often line the beach in front of the Ocean Lakes Family Campground in Myrtle Beach, S.C., sometimes four or five deep, like a multicolored checkerboard.

The hot new trend in beach-going accommodations is more than just a colorful way to be ultra protected from the sun's rays; the four-post tents are also starting to cause a safety problem in some areas of the beach, restricting access by public safety vehicles trying to get to medical calls and obstructing the view of the ocean from several lifeguard stands, the Myrtle Beach Sun News reported.

With the July Fourth holiday approaching, the season's busiest day for beachgoers, Horry County's Public Safety Department is concerned about the proliferation of tents.

The Horry County Council is considering banning the structures from county beaches to solve the safety issues, but an ordinance change with three readings would likely not take effect until after the summer because of the council's meeting schedule.

"People start coming out at 5 a.m. and 4 a.m. and put these canopies up and leave. When the tide comes in, they'll back them all the way up to the dunes and our lanes of travel disappear," said Duke Brown, the county's beach safety coordinator.

"When we're dealing with water emergencies, time is of the essence. As the day progresses, the beach patrol and lifeguards are looking for lost children and dealing with medical problems, near drownings, drownings, injuries. We had more heat-related illness calls in the past two weeks because of the temperatures and it is getting to the point that they can't adequately do their jobs," he said. "You have to carry people off the beach. If we have to put somebody on a backboard, we're taking them off the beach with a truck and it becomes a problem. People will get upset with us for asking them to move."

Paul Whitten, the assistant county administrator for public safety, said a lifeguard was assaulted earlier this year when he asked a beachgoer to move a tent from his line of sight. He said in another case a beach truck attending to a medical call on the water was closed in by tents during the time he was dealing with patients and then had trouble convincing the beachgoers to move the tents so he could leave the beach.

"They don't just set up one of these tents; families will set up four or five right next to each other," Whitten said.

"It's getting to be an issue. I stood out there and looked early in the morning and it was already getting filled up and travel lanes were restricted. I don't know what else to do" aside from banning the tents, Whitten said.

The major areas of concern are near the campgrounds, where people drag the tents from their RVs and set up early in the morning to get a jump on all of the other summer beachgoers.

Traditional beach umbrellas, which average about 7 1/2 feet in diameter, often sit lower to the ground and don't obstruct views from the lifeguard stands as much. The umbrellas are also easier to move when a public safety truck needs to get to the surf. The tents, which are from 10 square feet to 12 square feet, are often weighed down with buckets of sand and can take 10 or 15 minutes to dismantle and move.

Lt. Jack Stuart with Horry County Beach Patrol said the tents have steadily increased over the last few years because of what he termed the Wal-Mart effect, meaning more stores are carrying the canopies at cheaper prices.

"They'll leave them up all night, sometimes thinking if they lose them, it's just a cost of the vacation," he said. "We comb the beach at night though, and that's a $50,000 piece of equipment. When it's dark out we've definitely hit a few of them, and sooner or later one is going to get sucked up into the rake and damage it."

Other area municipalities are also seeing an increase in the tents.

North Myrtle Beach passed an ordinance in 2007 restricting them from being on the beach between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., which has curbed some of the aggression for reserving the best spots on the beach. If a tent is left up, said Steve Thomas, assistant city manager in North Myrtle Beach, the public safety department will take it down and keep it for a limited time to be claimed.

"We've definitely had to crack down on them being left out at night," he said. "If you have a number of them put up in a row, it could be a potential problem, but I'm not aware of anything specific at this point. If it does become a problem, it will have to be addressed."

Myrtle Beach also restricts the tents from being placed on the beach overnight and will remove any unattended tents, said city manager Tom Leath. He said the city has also restricted any structures including umbrellas and chairs from being placed in front or around the lifeguard towers to allow room for beach vehicles to pass through when needed.

The Horry County Council Public Safety Committee discussed restricting the number of tents allowed on the beach, but several council members protested, asking who would be responsible for counting or for enforcement. The council will discuss what to do at the next public safety meeting. Whitten said the department plans to take aerial photos during the July Fourth holiday to show the proliferation.

Meanwhile, the beach patrol recommends setting up umbrellas or tents with space left between the dunes and the beach for emergency vehicles, and to leave a column of space at beach access points that stretches to the surf to make sure medical calls in the water can be attended to quickly.

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