Going to the beach is one of the most popular summer activities. However, certain weather and ocean conditions can make swimming risky or even dangerous. On red flag days, special warnings are issued to alert beachgoers to potentially hazardous conditions. Understanding what a red flag day means can help you stay safe while still enjoying your time at the shore.
What Does a Red Flag Mean at the Beach?
Red flags are used as a visual warning system at beaches worldwide. A red flag flown from lifeguard towers or posts signifies that swimming is prohibited or highly discouraged. Conditions are considered unsafe for entering the water due to high surf, strong rip currents, or other threats.
A red flag warning indicates high hazard risks. If you see a red flag posted:
- Do not enter the water
- Only go up to your ankles if absolutely necessary
- Keep close watch on children and do not let them go near or in the water
- Be aware of your surroundings and any changing conditions
- Pay attention to any instructions given by lifeguards and follow their orders
It’s crucial to take red flag days seriously. Wave heights, surf intensity, and the strength of rip currents can change rapidly from one moment to the next. A red flag indicates expert opinion that ocean conditions are too dangerous for recreational swimming, surfing, or other water activities.
Why Are Red Flags Used?
Red flags provide an urgent visual cue that helps safeguard beachgoers. Lifeguards raise the red flag based on their ongoing assessment of various risk factors, including:
- Wave height – Large, powerful waves can knock swimmers over and under with tremendous force.
- Surf – Intense wave action can repeatedly batter swimmers and make it difficult to breathe or stay afloat.
- Rip currents – Fast moving channels of water flowing out from shore can pull swimmers away from the beach into deep water.
- Wind – Strong gusts can blow inflatables and small craft far from shore and make swimming difficult.
- Lightning – Electrically charged thunderstorms in the vicinity put people at risk in the open water.
- Storms – Hurricanes and other storms can create unpredictable and dangerous conditions with high winds and large waves.
- Marine life – Shark sightings or jellyfish swarms may require clearing people out of the water temporarily.
Red flag warnings allow lifeguards to quickly communicate hazardous swimming conditions that can change rapidly at different times of day. This system has undoubtedly saved many lives by keeping people onshore when the risks are too high.
Types of Red Flag Warnings
There are a few variations of red flag warnings to indicate different levels of risk:
- Single red flag – High hazard, use extreme caution
- Double red flag – Water closed to public, do not enter water
- Red over red – Beach closed, stay out of water and off sand
Sometimes a red flag with a black square in the center is used to indicate strong wave activity and dangerous shorebreak conditions. Additional warning flags may be flown underneath a red flag to indicate specific hazards like sharks, jellyfish, algae, or pollution.
Who Makes the Call?
Deciding whether to fly the red flag is the responsibility of the lifeguard staff based on conditions and training. At most beaches, lifeguards routinely monitor weather forecasts, wave heights, tidal charts, wind direction and speed, and other factors that determine water hazards. If the conditions warrant it, the call will be made to raise the red flag.
At some beaches, especially those unguarded or with no lifeguard on duty, the park service, police, or emergency management personnel may raise the red flag based on their protocols. Consult with the local authorities if you have questions about who makes the red flag decision.
When Are Red Flags Used?
Red flags are generally posted at the start of the day but can be raised or lowered as conditions change. Some reasons why red flag warnings are issued at different times include:
- Early morning – To preemptively warn of risks anticipated due to tides, swell size and direction, wind, or weather fronts moving in.
- Changing tides – High tide can mean increased wave activity, currents, and reduced beach area.
- Mid-day – Peak winds often whip up waves and increase riptide strength around midday.
- Afternoon storms – Rapidly building thunderstorms with lightning and gusty winds can roll through in the afternoon.
- Evening hours – Dangers like sharks and jellyfish are more prevalent at dusk and nighttime hours.
The red flag can go up or down multiple times in a single day as conditions improve or worsen. Lifeguards are continually monitoring the weather and water throughout their shift.
How Are Red Flags Communicated to Beachgoers?
There are a few ways that red flag warnings are communicated onsite:
- Bright red flag flown visibly on lifeguard towers and posts
- Warning signs posted at beach access points
- Verbal announcements over loudspeakers and megaphones
- Lifeguards informing people in person
- Police vehicles patrolling with flashing lights and sirens
- Reports and alerts shared through media and websites
Many public beaches have also begun implementing flag warning systems with colored pennants or beach condition flags that correspond to surf hazards. Red flags may be used in conjunction with colored flag advisories.
How Long Do Red Flag Warnings Last?
There is no set time limit for red flag conditions. The red flag stays up until lifeguards or officials determine the hazard has abated and the water is safe for recreational use again. This could be after a few hours, an entire day, or sometimes multiple days if high surf and adverse conditions persist.
Beachgoers should always consult lifeguards before entering the water if red flags were posted earlier in the day. Do not rely on past conditions since the ocean can change suddenly.
What Other Flag Colors Indicate Water Hazards?
In addition to red, other colored flags are sometimes used to warn beachgoers of water hazards:
- Yellow – Medium hazard, use caution when swimming
- Purple – Dangerous marine life present like jellyfish or sharks
- Orange – Potentially hazardous surf conditions
- Green – Calm conditions, water entry is safe
These colored beach condition flags provide more nuanced warnings compared to a red flag total water closure. Always understand the meaning of flags flown at a particular beach before going in the ocean.
What Are Other Ways to Stay Safe on Red Flag Days?
While it’s best to stay completely out of the water on red flag days, you can still enjoy the beach safely with these tips:
- Build sandcastles instead of swimming
- Go beachcombing and look for shells/seaglass
- Lay out in the sun away from the water
- Fly kites in open areas
- Play volleyball or paddleball games
- Go sightseeing along beach boardwalks and piers
Always keep children well away from the surf and never take your eyes off them. Be mindful of changing conditions like rising tide or increasing winds. Have an evacuation plan in case you need to seek shelter from storms or high winds.
Are There Exceptions to Red Flag Warnings?
At certain beaches, some individuals may be exempt from red flag restrictions depending on local statutes. This can include:
- Professional surfers and athletes
- Scientific researchers
- Military personnel performing water training
- Surf lifesaving club members
However, these groups enter the water at their own risk and must receive special permission from local authorities first. The general public should always obey red flags and stay out of areas marked for authorized personnel only.
What Are the Penalties for Ignoring Red Flag Warnings?
Ignoring red flags and swimming during hazardous conditions can warrant legal penalties. These include:
- Fines up to $1,000
- Misdemeanor charges
- Mandatory community service
- Jail time
Swimmers who knowingly disobey red flags essentially commit crimes equivalent to criminal trespassing or reckless endangerment. They also waste critical first responder resources if emergency services are called upon to make unnecessary aquatic rescues.
Real-Life Examples of Red Flag Dangers
It can be tempting to think “it won’t happen to me,” but countless tragedies occur when people ignore red flag warnings. Some sobering examples include:
|Result of Ignoring Red Flags
|June 23, 2022
|A 16-year old boy drowned after being caught in a rip current when swimming during double red flag conditions.
|May 6, 2021
|Two young men drowned after clinging to an inflatable toy when strong rip currents overpowered them. Red flags had been posted that day.
|March 17, 2019
|Los Angeles, California
|A father died trying to rescue his 12-year-old daughter who was struggling in heavy surf under red flag warnings. She ultimately survived.
These examples underscore why it is so important to take red flags extremely seriously. Simply entering the water for a few minutes can quickly turn to tragedy if conditions are dangerous enough to warrant a red flag warning.
Are Double Red Flags More Serious Than a Single Red Flag?
Yes, a double red flag warning indicates even more hazardous conditions than a single red flag. Some beaches fly the double red when the following situations occur:
- Hurricane or tropical storm offshore with strong winds, waves, currents, and storm surge.
- Tsunami advisory with major tidal surges predicted.
- Severe weather such as waterspouts or tornados in the vicinity.
- Extreme high surf reaching over 20 feet wave faces.
- Dense fog reducing visibility to near zero.
- Shark-infested waters confirmed with multiple attacks.
Double red flags essentially mean the beach is “closed” to the public. Do not attempt to enter the water or even go near the shoreline if double red flags are posted. Conditions are exponentially more dangerous compared to a single red flag warning.
Understanding red flag warnings is a critical part of beach safety. Swimming, surfing, or playing in the waves may seem appealing, but can quickly turn deadly if red flags are raised due to high hazards.
It only takes moments for an otherwise fun day at the beach to end in tragedy if red flags are ignored. Rip currents in particular can overpower the strongest swimmers before they even realize the danger. When red flags fly, stay completely out of the water no matter how good conditions may look from shore.
Better to sit on the sand than risk your life or require emergency personnel to make a dangerous ocean rescue. Obey red flag warnings and encourage others to do the same. A day at the beach should be filled with happy memories, not grief over preventable accidents. The ocean will still be there another day when red flags are not posted.