If you have ever visited a beach in South Florida, you might have noticed red, yellow, or green flags posted at the lifeguard towers. These colored flags aren't just for decoration: South Florida's beaches use a uniform flag warning system (created by the United States Lifesaving Association and the International Lifesaving Federation) to alert the public of potential safety risks. The colors indicate the nature of the threat and the action government officials advise beachgoers to take. The system is consistent throughout the state of Florida, but many do not know what they mean.
The flags are color-coded rather than printed with written messages. This is due, in part, to many tourists and locals that are not fluent in English, and also because colors can be easily seen from a distance when words cannot.
It is imperative to monitor the flag warning system. Dangerous rip currents may exist in the water, but you cannot visibly see them from the shore. This is especially true in South Florida, where distant tropical storms may impact our currents and produce dangerous beach conditions—even when no other symptoms of tropical weather are present. According to the local government, the flag color meanings are as follows:
- Two red flags: These indicate that the water is closed to the public. This means that you cannot swim, surf, fish, wade, or go boating. On some beaches, you might see one red flag with a "no swimming" symbol instead.
- One red flag: If you see one red flag, a high surf and/or dangerous currents present high hazard conditions. It is not recommended, but you can go swimming or surfing. However, if you choose to do so, you should use extreme caution and only go in the water if you are a very strong swimmer.
- Yellow flags: Yellow flags indicate medium hazard due to a moderate surf/and or currents. Strong swimmers can still dive into the water with fairly mild risks; otherwise, wear a life jacket or stick to the shore.
- Green flags: The waters are calm and present a low hazard. They are safe to swim in; however, beachgoers should still exercise caution, especially when children are present.
- Blue or purple flags: These flags warn against dangerous marine life, such as a high concentration of poisonous jellies, stingrays, and dangerous fish. They are used in conjunction with a red, yellow, or green flag that indicates the current surf/current conditions. Take note that this flag is not used when there are sharks; if a shark has been spotted, a red flag will be raised.
Flags are not always limited to double red, red, yellow, green, and blue/purple. In some areas, you might see flags with symbols intended for surfers and other water sports enthusiasts. For instance, a yellow flag with a black circle in the middle indicates that surfboards are banned, as are other non-powered watercraft. A black-and-white checkered flag, on the other hand, designates an area as surfboard-friendly.
If you see a flag and do not know what it means, ask a lifeguard for assistance.
The Miami Dade Fire Rescue recommends the following safety tips to keep in mind while enjoying the local beaches:
- The best survival tip is prevention. Always avoid swimming when rip current advisories are in effect.
- Swim only at beaches that have on-duty lifeguards, and consult them about surf conditions before entering the water.
- Never swim alone. Keep an extra careful watch on children and elderly swimmers.
- If you do get caught in a rip current, remain calm and do not try to swim against the current. Instead, swim out of the current in a perpendicular direction, following the shoreline. Once you are out of the current, you can safely swim back to shore.
- If you cannot swim out of the current, float or lightly tread water to conserve your energy until you are out of the current, and then swim to shore.
- Do not be a hero. Many people drown while trying to save others from a rip current. Instead, if you see someone in trouble, get help from a lifeguard or call 911.