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Rescue by numbers

TODAY columnist Lori Tobias looks at the figures behind a plan to make our beaches safer

Published on September 30, 2014 2:36PM

The call for help came on a crazy busy summer day. A boogie boarder was caught in the rip off the beach in Lincoln City. North Lincoln Fire & Rescue Captain Jim Kusz raced to SW 51st Street, the nearest access to the victim. Then came a second call to say the man was floating ever farther away and was now closer to SW 50th Street.

‘Wait a minute,’ Kusz said. ‘SW 50th doesn’t go to the beach. And if he is floating south, the numbers should be getting bigger, not smaller.’ Turned out, the closest access was actually NW 51st — 100 blocks of jammed traffic away.

Had the caller taken a closer look around, he might have seen the number on the beach access sign, and Kusz and other rescuers would have known exactly where to find the victim.


I first spotted the number at Agate Beach while slogging over the dunes after my morning run. The sign facing the ocean was large and yellow with 58A rendered in bold black. “Huh,” I thought, and left it at that. Then, not long after, now thoroughly fed up with struggling over the massive dunes at Agate Beach, I went to Nye Beach instead. There, I saw a different sort of sign, this one smaller, but also with a number, and facing the beach access.

I stopped to read it, “In case of an emergency dial 911 and state the location number above.”

Fourteen years and I’d never noticed the beaches were numbered. Was I, who’d made a career in spotting details, really that lacking, or was this something new? Turns out, both. Sort of.

The Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation has been testing the signs in various places, including Lincoln City, for a number of years now, but it’s just recently that the signs have gone up around Newport. The big number on the beach is for the Coast Guard, the signs facing the shore, for you and I.

By next summer, 197 state, county and federal park accesses up and down the coast should be linked to a number. When an emergency occurs, if the witness can tell the emergency dispatcher that number, the emergency responder will know exactly where to find them.

That could be the difference between life and death. And let’s be honest, we have way more than our share of death here on the coast. As breathtaking as it can be, it is also naturally rigged with all sorts of hazards. Just read the rest of the beach sign: stay off logs; beware of incoming tides; watch out for sneaker waves; stay away from cliffs. Jeepers creepers, by the time you hit the sand you could scare yourself half to death.

Meanwhile, when trouble does strike, the horrified bystanders, just here to enjoy themselves, don’t really know where they are except somewhere on the beach. Even if they know where they accessed it, depending on how long they’ve been walking, they may have no idea how far they’ve wandered. Not to mention the fog that can make it impossible to find even your own danged feet.

And no, tragedy is no laughing matter, but you can’t just sit around crying about it all day. You gotta do something. A few years ago, I wrote about a lovely young woman visiting from New Jersey. Late one night, she and a friend wandered off to look at the stars. Kelli assumed the slope to the beach was gentle, like those back home. Instead she wound up face first in the boulders 25-feet below. Luckily for Kelli, her friend was smart enough to use his smartphone to find the GPS coordinates to guide the first responders to her.

I don’t know about you, but I can pretty much guarantee that were I witnessing an emergency, I would not have the calm to whip out my Smarter-than-I-Phone and figure out the GPS location. But a number, that I can remember.

So here’s what I think we should do: Next time you hit the beach, take a look at the sign and memorize the number. Hopefully, you’ll never need it. But if so, you’ll know exactly what to do.

As did one sharp first responder, luckily for that boogie boarder, who, Kusz reports, was very, very cold, but lived to tell the tale.

Lori Tobias covered the coast for The Oregonian for nine years. She lives in Newport, where she freelances for a number of regional and national publications, as well as the occasional post for her blog loritobias.com.

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