With the season shifting into high gear, safety procedures at local beaches are under intense scrutiny due to the presence of large, adult great whites sometimes feeding close to shore, and following last summer's shark-bite fatality at Wellfleet's Newcomb Hollow and another, almost-deadly attack at Truro's Longnook.
But an already established EMT program at Nauset Beach in Orleans has made the transition to more hyper-focused beach safety procedures easier to manage, with just a few tweaks to existing safety and rescue protocol.
"Incremental improvements to the program over the years have really allowed us, at this point, to only have to make minor changes to adjust for potential threats and be more prepared," said Orleans Fire Chief Tony Pike.
Nauset's four, full-time EMTs have a first aid building located near the food court on the public parking lot, and they work a staggered 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. shift, with all four on the beach on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and two Monday though Thursday.
Patrolling the outer beach as well as the public area, the EMTs are trained to respond to the remote areas of Nauset as effectively as they do the public beach.
The EMT program, which has been in effect for roughly 10 years in different forms, seven years under the fire department's budget, uses the OFD's three-tiered approach to emergency management to improve safety response, said Chief Pike.
"Our focus is on partnerships, in this case between the beach lifeguards and staff, along with education and training to provide the most aggressive posture for safety for the beach patrons, and I think we've come a long way since the implementation of the program," the chief said.
In conjunction with Nate Sears, head of the town's natural resources department, which manages the beach and the lifeguards, the two departments have developed the program to fit the changing safety needs.
A key focus is time—bridging the gap between responding to an incident in the water and the use of advanced life-saving and support treatment, so that there is the least amount of time as possible between the two.
"When you talk about major medical situations, particularly bleeds, every moment is critical, and when you're talking about the most remote parts of the town being the outer beach, and some of the highest concentrations of people during the busiest time of our peak season, time is a major consideration," he explained.
Chief Pike estimated that having EMTs stationed at the public beach, with the right equipment and specific vehicles designed for the sand, cuts the response time in half. As a side benefit, their presence and ability to quickly assess and treat an injury could mean that an ambulance would not have to respond to the beach for an evaluation.
"Now, the patient can legally refuse treatment and we don't have to take an ambulance off the streets to do that," he noted.
While the new Stop the Bleed kits positioned on the outer beaches will help the initial response for emergencies, advanced life support in a timely manner is the ultimate goal.
With a season stretching 20 weeks, starting just prior to Memorial Day and spilling into the fall, the beach averages nearly 150 minor first aids, along with 25 major first aids per season.
According to Pike, even before great whites became a major issue for the region the beach EMTs had helped the town transition to a constantly changing situation.
"Nauset Beach is not the same as it was 20 years ago, and we have to be ready for everything to help serve the beach-going public in the most quick and effective manner. Being able to tailor our program to fit those changing needs is a real asset. We're now able to evolve with the challenges instead of playing catch-up and just reacting to them."
Part of the function of the program is also to assist the lifeguards in the day-to-day interaction with the public, including education on beach dangers and overall perception.
"The EMTs help inform the public about some of the safety concerns, and that allows the lifeguards to focus on the water. Their specialty is the water, they have advanced training and equipment to deal with that, and we're focused on our specialty, which is the medical aspect of things."
And while the two overlap, the two entities working in conjunction have developed a solid relationship.
"Because Chief Pike was progressive in recognizing the significant threat of the sharks, and other medical needs at the beach, the town of Orleans is fortunate to be on the forefront of addressing this safety issue. His unrelenting commitment to make our beaches safer has provided unmatched leadership for the region," said Sears.
Looking ahead, Chief Pike said he envisions using a personal water craft at the beach to assist in major water rescues, but he added that it is not as simple as just purchasing the equipment.
"It's not like renting one of these things while on vacation—serious training and certification would be involved, just like all other rescue equipment. But it's something that should be considered."
Emergency responders also have access to a town rescue boat, stationed seasonally at the beach, to be used for larger rescues with the potential for additional uses in the future. But the chief stressed proper and additional training should be prioritized.