By RENEE SPENCER, Wilmington StarNews
OAK ISLAND, NC (AP) — It’s a Saturday morning in mid-June, which means the beach on Oak Island is packed. The tide is rising and the beach is narrow, especially at the east end.
Cynthia Grant, a member of the Oak Island Beach Services Unit, weaves her utility vehicle through a crowd of beachgoers, keeping an eye out for safety issues and ordinance violations.
From time to time, she stops the vehicle. Sometimes it’s to pick up trash — soda cans and bags of chips left behind by bathers the night before — and other times it’s dealing with violations of city ordinances, usually someone trespassing on the dunes. Answering questions about beach gear rentals, educating visitors about beach preservation, and watching a man swim far beyond the crowds complete his morning.
The Oak Island Beach Services Unit, a civilian branch of the Oak Island Police Department, was established in May. Currently, the unit’s 13 employees work shifts in three areas – beach patrol, parking enforcement and drone operation – patrol the shoreline from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week during peak season (May 13 to September 5).
The Beach Services Unit, or BSU, is very different from the Beach Patrol the city had in recent years.
“It’s kind of an evolution that builds on what was originally called beach patrol,” said Michael Emory, communications manager for the City of Oak Island. “There’s a reason we renamed it the ‘Beach Services Unit’ because they incorporate so much more than beach patrols for a dune violation.”
Emory added that the city’s decision to use civilians for these positions came down to “cost-benefit.”
“The pay scale for sworn officers is a little different in North Carolina,” Emory said.
He explained that sworn officers would be required to work a certain number of hours, which would complicate scheduling.
“By making it a civilian-staffed unit, we’re able to hire faster, and we’re able to staff that unit faster and more efficiently,” Emory said.
Although members of the city’s Beach Services Unit issue citations for violating city dune, parking, and beach ordinances, they also focus on public safety and education.
“Going forward, there will be an added element of safety with them running current surf conditions and tearing flags, and there is CPR training coming in,” Emory said.
Although the surf condition and rip current flags have been ordered, they have yet to arrive, but Emory hopes they will arrive “as soon as possible”, and CPR training should take place in the coming weeks. .
In addition to enforcing beach-related ordinances, keeping emergency vehicle access points clear, and helping to keep bathers safe, Beach Service Unit employees also strive to educate people about beach preservation and rip currents.
Grant, who also helps enforce parking, said she always tries to educate people first.
“Sometimes they’re just visiting and maybe they don’t know the ordinances,” she explained.
She added that most of the time people are understanding and want to do the right thing. However, when people choose to ignore the rules, they have to issue citations, and these can be costly. If a person has been warned that they are encroaching on the dunes and disregard the warning, the fine is $100.
“It’s not fun to tell people to move their campsite, but it’s important,” Grant said. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t believe it.”
Grant said most of the time the people she deals with are friendly and she rarely had any problems. However, she knows that if any of the beach service employees encounter a difficult situation, officers from the Oak Island Police Department are there to support them.
In addition to employees patrolling the beach and monitoring the parking lot, two drone operators monitor the beach on weekends. The drones are equipped with a loudspeaker, which allows the operators to talk to bathers and bathers and communicate with them. If the drone operator sees a situation that needs to be resolved, they call beach services, first responders, or water rescue.
“It’s just been magical,” Grant said. “It’s just stunning technology.”
While the Oak Island Beach Services Unit has been in operation for just over a month, employees believe it has been a success, and Emory thanks Police Chief Charlie Morris for renaming and reorganized the unit.
Grant, who has worked with the city since 2018 and served in its former beach patrol, agreed.
“The team they’ve put together is working well,” Grant said. “It’s not a bad job. You help your city, you help educate and you protect the beaches all in the same day. Doing something you love and a bit of ching-ching in the pocket – there’s never a bad day.
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