OAK ISLAND, N.C. (AP) — It’s a Saturday morning in mid-June, which means that Oak Island’s beach strand is crowded. The tide is rising, and the beach is narrow, particularly on the east end.
Cynthia Grant, a member of Oak Island’s Beach Services Unit, weaves her utility vehicle through throngs of beachgoers, keeping her eye out for safety concerns and ordinance violations.
Occasionally, she stops the vehicle. A few times, it’s to grab trash — soda cans and chip bags left by beachgoers the day before —and other times, she addresses town ordinance violations, usually someone encroaching on the dunes. Answering questions about beach equipment rentals, educating visitors about beach preservation, and checking on a man swimming far beyond the crowd round out her morning.
Oak Island’s Beach Services Unit, a civilian-staffed 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 strand from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week during the peak season (May 13 through Sept. 5).
The Beach Services Unit, or BSU, is much different than the beach patrol that the town had in years past.
“This is kind of an evolution building upon what was originally referred to as the beach patrol,” said Michael Emory, communications manager for the town of Oak Island. “There’s a reason why we’ve rebranded it as the ‘Beach Services Unit’ because they’re incorporating so much more than patrolling the beach for a dune violation.”
Emory added that the town’s decision to use civilians for these positions came down to a “cost-to-benefit ratio.”
“The pay scale for sworn officers is a little bit different in North Carolina,” Emory said.
He explained that sworn officers would be required to work a specific number of hours, which would make scheduling difficult.
“By making it a civilian-staffed unit, we’re able to hire more quickly, and we’re able to staff that unit more quickly and more efficiently,” Emory said.
While members of the town’s Beach Services Unit do issue citations for violating the city’s dune, parking, and beach ordinances, they are also focused on public safety and education.
“In the future, there will be a safety component added with the fact that they will be running the surf condition and rip current flags, and there is some CPR training that’s coming,” Emory said.
While the surf condition and rip current flags have been ordered, they have not yet arrived, but Emory hopes that they will arrive “sooner rather than later,” and CPR training is expected to occur within the next few weeks.
In addition to enforcing beach-related ordinances, keeping emergency vehicle access points clear, and helping keep beachgoers safe, employees with the Beach Services unit also strive to educate people about beach preservation and rip currents.
Grant, who also helps with parking enforcement, said that she always tries to educate people first.
“Sometimes, they’re just visiting, and they may not be familiar with 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 must issue citations, and those can be costly. If a person has been warned that they are encroaching on the dunes and fails to heed 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 in it.”
Grant said that most of the time, the people she deals with are friendly, and she has rarely had trouble. However, she knows that if any of the beach services employees encounter a challenging situation, the officers with the Oak Island Police Department are there to support them.
In addition to employees who work beach patrol and parking enforcement, there are also two drone operators keeping an eye on the beach strand during the weekends. The drones are equipped with a speaker, which allows the operators to speak to beachgoers and swimmers and communicate with them. If the drone operator sees a situation that needs to be addressed, he calls for beach services, first responders, or water rescue.
“That has just been magical,” Grant said. “It’s just mind-blowing technology.”
While Oak Island’s Beach Services Unit has been in operation for just over a month, employees believe it has been a success, and Emory credits police chief Charlie Morris for rebranding and revamping the unit.
Grant, who has been working with the town since 2018 and served in its former beach patrol, agreed.
“The team they put together works well,” Grant said. “It’s not a bad job. You’re helping your town, you’re helping educate, and you’re protecting the beaches all on the same day. Doing something you love and a little ching-ching in the pocket – there’s never a bad day.”