A county attorney modernized his crusade to warn beachgoers of a danger more deadly than shark attacks at Brevard County beaches with a high-tech twist to rip current warning signs.
"Nobody is getting killed in our county from sharks but there are a lot of people drowning," Michael Fitzgerald told Florida Today. "There is new technology which we could use to help prevent them."
Fitzgerald designed a a new rip-tide warning sign that will allow beachgoers to get information about to beach conditions on their smartphones.
Brevard Parks and Recreation Department expects the first 40 signs to appear next month and the rollout to be completed early next year.
With QR codes, or a phone number, someone can access lifeguards locations, weather reports and rip current conditions. They could even sign up for text alerts for storms.
Brevard County Ocean Rescue launched a mobile website that provides much of the information online.
"It gives them the knowledge before they get out on the beach and put themselves in danger if there is a high rip current risk that day or inclement weather approaching," said Jeff Scabarozi, Ocean Rescue chief.
There were 22 rip current deaths in Brevard surf between 2003 and 2013, according to United States Lifesaving Association data. All of them were in areas without a lifeguard.
The new signs, which are four times larger than the original signs, are bilingual with safety tips in Spanish and will be placed at 219 public access points to the beach in Brevard.
The county Tourism Development Council kicked in about $16,000 to produce the signs.
The top of the sign has a standard diagram of how to escape a rip current, a collaboration between the United States Lifesaving Association and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
However, swimming at a lifeguard-protected beach would still be more effective than evading a rip current.
"It is just not an easy thing to do," said Chris Brewster, president of the United States Lifesaving Association. "People get in rip currents, they panic and they don't make logical decisions no matter what they read on a sign.
"By far the best decision they can make is to swim in a lifeguard-protected area. Some sort of encouragement to do that can't hurt and it is likely to help."
Fitzgerald, an attorney who works for the county, began his campaign for rip current signs in 1998 after he witnessed high school students on Melbourne Beach mourning the death of a classmate as they tossed flowers into the ocean.
James McGriff was a 19-year-old All America football player at Palm Bay High bound for the University of Florida before he drowned in the surf on senior skip day.
"I noticed there were signs on the beach, but no signs for rip currents," Fitzgerald said.
He hopes the new signs can make a difference and save lives.
"This is not my job, it is something I have a passion for when I saw people were drowning," Fitzgerald said. "I live on the beach and this is my way of giving back to the community."