South Florida's beaches use a uniform flag warning system to alert the public of potential safety risks. These colored flags 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 provide no visible indication from 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:
- Red flags with a "no swimming" symbol indicate that the water is closed to the public. This includes swimming, boating, surfing, fishing, and wading.
- Red flags without a symbol indicate a high hazard from surf and/or currents. While not recommended, swimming and surfing are still permitted if there is a red flag present. However, you should use extreme caution and only go in the water if you are a very strong swimmer.
- Yellow flags indicate a medium hazard from moderate surf and/or currents; strong swimmers can still dive in with fairly mild risks.
- Green flags indicate a low hazard with calm conditions, but beachgoers should still exercise caution, especially when children are present.
- Blue or purple flags indicate a hazard from dangerous marine life, such as a high concentration of poisonous jellies, stingrays, or sharks. These flags are used in conjunction with a red, yellow, or green flag that indicates the current surf/current conditions.
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 don't 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.
- Don't 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.