Improving the impact of beach safety information for beachgoers (A Survey)
Oct 21, 2022

Improving the impact of beach safety information for beachgoers (A Survey)

The provision of real time beach safety information to the public is a rapidly evolving space for marine safety agencies, and Watchtower is continuing to develop tools that help lifeguards communicate risk and engage with their local communities. Part of that process recently involved some information gathering to help inform these efforts - we thought the results were pretty interesting and were motivated to share.

First, a bit of background. We were really interested to learn more about how beachgoers perceive safety information delivered from lifeguards and if that safety guidance actually stuck. To that end, we ran a small pilot survey of beachgoers in Huntington Beach (HB), one of the busiest beaches in Southern California, to evaluate beach user attitudes and knowledge of marine public safety information. It sounds fancy, but in reality we walked up to nearly everyone on the beach between Towers 11 and 19 on a Saturday afternoon in August (it took about three hours) and asked if they would answer a few questions for us. We recorded what they said on a tablet and boom, here we are. 

A total of 207 people participated in the survey, the graphs and map below show information on their age, gender, home residence zip code, and beach visitation frequency. Generally, participants were younger, more frequently female, not from the local Huntington Beach area, and occasional beach users that visit only once or twice a summer. Importantly, these details reflect who participated in the survey, not necessarily a perfect snapshot of who was on the beach that day. Some people might be less likely to say “yes” when asked if they would like to answer a few questions, and the graphs below would probably look different had we been out in the morning or on a weekday.

NOTE: This map shows the home zip code locations of 65.2% of the survey respondents. 11.2% were from out of state, the remaining were from other parts of California not visible on this map. 

The starting place for this project was to try and determine if people actually care what lifeguards say. Establishing if there is an existing desire and value on safety information provided by lifeguards helps us know where and how to communicate this sort of information. Nearly all respondents (94.3%) placed high value on beach safety information from the lifeguards: of those surveyed, 72.8% rated beach safety info from lifeguards as “Very Important” and 21.5% rated it as “Important”.  We ran statistical tests to see if there were differences in lifeguard safety information value by age, gender, and beach visitation frequency, and there was none. That means, across the board, people really value safety info coming from the lifeguards. What a relief!

Our next question was to see if people had recently seen or heard any sort of beach safety information, and, if yes, where they got that info from. We figured that the percentage might be low, so we tipped the scales a little bit so we could help the guards out that day and add some numbers for us to test. On the day of the survey, parking attendants distributed a printed QR code to every vehicle that entered the lot, and the beach area where we were surveying was saturated with additional signage with QR codes. Upon scanning the QR code from the parking attendant or a physical sign, users were directed to the Huntington Beach Marine Safety Public Dashboard housed at SafeBeachDay.com. On the dashboard that day, Huntington Beach Lifeguards had a specific warning about dangerous surf, rip currents, and stingrays. The parking lot and signage blitz of beach safety QR codes increased traffic to the HB Public Safety Dashboard to 10 times the daily average. This shows a bit of effort can really get these messages in front of people!

However, even with our QR Code blitz, only 21% of the people surveyed had seen beach safety information anywhere in the past three days. Remember, this was a Saturday in August… There is a lot of room to improve here. For those who did encounter beach safety information in the three days prior, the majority received it from the QR codes we pushed out and from physical signs. 

We asked the people who had, and those who had not seen safety information where they would like to get such information in the future. The preferred medium was physical signs, which is pretty interesting given that several studies have shown beach safety signs to be mostly ineffective. QR codes and direct text messages or emails also were frequently chosen. We ran statistical tests to see if the relationships between the preferred medium of beach safety information changed by age, gender, and beach visitation frequency, and it did not. 

Lastly, we wanted to see what the main safety concerns were at the beach, and if there were differences between the people who visited the HB Marine Safety Dashboard (via QR codes) and those who did not. We asked people to list their top three safety concerns at the beach that day, top responses were: rip currents (70.9%), sharks (53.1%), waves (45.9%), stingrays (38.3%), deep water (24.0%), and sun (21.9%). Next we split the responses according to who had been to the HB Marine Safety Dashboard and who had not to see if there were any differences in which hazards people reported. Remember, on survey day the HB Lifeguards posted about rip currents, waves, and stingrays. There were no statistical differences when we tested rip currents and waves, which both were frequently cited as safety concerns. We did however find that people who visited the HB Marine Safety Dashboard were about 40% more likely to include stingrays in their top three hazards compared to people that had not. Of those who went to the dashboard, 61.1% said stingrays were a main safety concern that day compared to only 25% of the people who had not visited the dashboard. 

We are not claiming that this small pilot survey was any sort of earth shattering research, but we learned alot about doing this sort of work and the project provided some really interesting results. Big picture, we believe this work shows beach safety messaging on digital platforms is worth exploring more - there is something here and we have the potential to make a real impact on public safety at beaches if we can optimize how lifeguards are communicating risk. Specifically, a few of our main takeaways from this project were:

  1. People want and value safety information from lifeguards - nearly all the respondents (94%) said it was important or very important. 
  2. Small efforts such as distributing Safety info with QR codes via parking pay off - we increased HB Marine Safety Dashboard visits ten-fold with very little work.
  3. Very few (about 20%) of beach goers saw any sort of safety information in the three days prior to the beach, even with our additional signs and the help of the parking lot attendants.
  4. When someone does visit the dashboard, there is some evidence that the lifeguard messages presented there actually stick and influence their perception of what they need to be careful of that day. 

Stay tuned for future developments on our public safety dashboard work, and future studies!

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