What are you doing with those flags? Semaphore

The surf rescue technician’s (lifeguard’s) flags serve two purposes. First, they are used in one of the three communications methods that the Beach Patrol uses to communicate with each other. This form of communication is called semaphore. Semaphore is a type of communication by which a person signals with two hand flags, moving his arms through various positions to represent letters, numerals and special signs. Semaphore is also used by the Scouts, Navy and Coast Guard to communicate over long distances (as long as you can see the other person). Although this method has been around for a long time, a major benefit to the Beach Patrol is that in an emergency or when a lifeguard is in the water, they do not need any electronics or technology to immediately update and communicate with each other. The majority of messages being sent between lifeguards are communications about lost and found individuals and potential dangers. Example:

Lost Boy Name Adam Age eight bathing suit color blue

Above is an example of one type of a message that SRTs send between adjoining stands. As you can see, to shorten the message we use many abbreviations, most letters also represent a full word (such as B = Boy, F=found, C= see, etc). This information is also transmitted by radio to the Town’s communications center (911 center) for broadcast to other agencies and departments throughout Ocean City.

We respond to approximately 1,000 cases of lost and found individuals in a typical season. This is a reduction over previous years due to our education of our beach users. It is also important to note that we have a 100 percent return rate. The ages of lost individuals range from 1 year old to 98 years old. Most are between the ages of 4 and 10 years old. Once we are aware of a missing individual it usually takes under 10 minutes (60 – 70%) to reunite the family (98% are returned within 20 minutes). Please let children know that if they are lost, to immediately go to the nearest lifeguard and not to try and locate you on their own and as parents follow the same advice. To learn semaphore and practice reading and sending messages, click on the interactive semaphore link on this page.

The lifeguards also use the flags for a second use and that is to direct beach patrons out of harms way. Although we do not expect any of our beach patrons to understand this signaling system, we also use the flags to indicate and point to our visitors. The SRT may point at you and direct you to move in a particular direction or to stop an activity such as ball playing in the water. This gentle signaling may be all it takes to warn and move you out of potential danger, such as rip currents, dangerous shorebreak or even marine life such as we see with whale sightings and other aquatic life. So remember, when an SRT whistles and points, locate them and make sure they are not trying to tell you something.

Interesting Note: The popular peace sign is really the combination of two semaphore letters N and D and stands for Nuclear Disarmament.

Historical Note: In 1947 Captain Craig introduces the semaphore system of communication, a system that he had seen at Key Biscayne, FL. From the proceeds of the benefit dance from 1947-1949, the guards purchased a 13ft. clinker- built boat to be used for rescue and patrol work.