With Some Tweaks, Chatham Will Rely On Existing Beach Safety Measures This Summer

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Sharks

The Lighthouse Beach patrol has been in place for a number of years, initially a response to dangerous currents in the area. Now patrol staff keeps an eye out for sharks and seals as well as swimmers in distress. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – While towns to the north look to upgrade cell phone coverage and install call boxes at beaches this summer in response to safety concerns in the wake of last year's fatal shark attack in Wellfleet, local safety officials say they are as ready as they can be for such an event and aren't planning any major initiatives despite the remoteness of the town's outer beaches.

The most significant effort being put forth is an investigation into a net or other barrier to protect the swimming beach at Oyster Pond. Some residents have voiced concerns about the presence of seals in the tidal pond and the potential for sharks to follow. However, no responses were received in response to the town's request for proposals for a feasibility study (see separate story).

But along popular Lighthouse Beach as well as remote North Beach Island and North Beach, which attract crowds of boaters and ORV users in the summer – though not the surfers seen at many Outer Cape beaches – officials don't expect to make many changes to safety protocols in place for a number of years, aside from a few tweaks.

For one thing, cell phone coverage isn't much of an issue here, unlike stretches of remote outer beach in Wellfleet and Truro, where large dunes can block signals. Even on North Beach and North Beach Island, cell phone reception is usually good, as is radio coverage for emergency personnel. There are a few dead areas, and signals can be blocked near large dunes or banks, such as along the Eastward Ho! Country Club, but for the most part communications isn't an issue, said Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson.

“I think our communications are pretty good,” agreed Harbormaster Stuart Smith. He said Outer Cape officials will be working with the Coast Guard in the coming weeks to test hand-held radio signals along the outer beach from Chatham to Provincetown. He's also looking into either raising radio antenna or installing repeaters at the fish pier or in other locations to ensure good VHF radio coverage.

Duncanson attended a call box demonstration in Truro last week and said he's not sure they would be useful here. Some are solar powered, some work with cell phones, others with satellite phones, which Fire Chief Peter Connick said can be a concern because some models take a minute or two to establish a connection, time that you don't have in an emergency such as a shark bite.

Placing call boxed on North Beach and North Beach Island also raised concerns about vandalism and flooding, Duncanson said. “I'm not convinced those types of structures would really survive out on the beach,” he said. New shark safety signs will be installed on the outer beaches, but signs also tend to disappear from those areas.

In the event of a shark attack on one of the outer beaches, the first response will most likely come from the town's harbor patrol. Patrol boats carry trauma kits, including compression bandages, and have for a number of years, Smith said. Most also have an EMT on board, especially during the high summer and weekends.

“Everybody's been trained up to first responder level,” he said, adding that the EMTs have been “really instrumental” in dealing with several medical cases in remote areas over the past few years.

“It allows for immediate interjections into the incident, as opposed to getting EMS folks out there. That can be time consuming,” he said.

Duncanson said bird monitors on North Beach Island and North Beach will have “Stop the Bleed” training, and the North Beach truck will be equipped with trauma kits along with the usual first aid equipment.

Those beaches get heavy use in the summer, but beachgoers tend to spread out, unlike on Lighthouse Beach, where swimming is restricted to an area marked off by buoys. The Lighthouse Beach patrol has been in place for many years now, begun initially in reaction to the often dangerous currents that run along the shore in that area. Now patrol staff also keep an eye out for sharks and seals. They all have had “Stop the Bleed” training for a number of years, said Park and Recreation Director Dan Tobin. They also have an ATV – called a Gator – that can quickly reach most areas of the beach, and a jet ski patrolling just off shore. New warning signs will also replace the signs that have been up at Lighthouse Beach for the past several years, and staff will continue to use the warning flag system in places at beaches all along the Outer Cape.

The beach patrol, which remains in place weekends through September, provides the first response to a medical emergency, with the fire and rescue department providing a second tier – or an initial response in off hours, said Connick. A victim can be placed on the back of the ATV, or the department can access the beach with one of its four-wheel drive vehicles via Bearse's Lane, just south of the Chatham Beach and Tennis Club, he said. With the type of injury seen in the two shark attacks in Wellfleet last year – one fatal – response is very time sensitive, he added.

“Quite frankly, no matter how we get there, it can be complex at best,” Connick said. The fire department also has a boat it can launch if necessary, though Connick said they usually rely on the harbor patrol.

While sharks sightings haven't caused beaches to be closed along Nantucket Sound – yet – seals are frequently seen there. All lifeguards receive “Stop the Bleed” and other first aid training, and have trauma kits available, Tobin said. At all Chatham beaches that are staffed, if a seal is seen within 100 yards of a swimming beach, people are ordered out of the water for 30 minutes. Tobin said there have been a few shark sightings at Lighthouse Beach; in that case, swimming is prohibited for at least one hour. Frequent beachgoers, especially those along the eastern coast, have also become accustomed to seeing the spotter plane used by shark researchers; when that is circling an area, people know there are sharks around, Tobin said.

Whether any of the shark mitigation measures that are being examined as part of a $49,950 study by the Woods Hole Group on behalf of six Outer Cape towns – including Chatham and Orleans – will be applicable in Chatham waters won't be known until the results are in sometime after September. Those include both physical and technological approaches; one group has started a Go Fund Me campaign seeing $200,000 for a “clever” buoy pilot project off Wellfleet this summer. However, for the coming summer, officials here believe they've done as much as they can to protect beachgoers from shark attacks.

“I think we're probably pretty well covered,” said Duncanson. “Obviously, you'd love to do more, but sometimes you can't because of finances and staffing.”