ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — Jersey Shore beach patrols are paying closer attention to the hazards swimmers face in the water, from rip currents to crashing waves that can injure a swimmer's back or neck.
While the number of back and neck injuries statewide was unavailable, AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center has reported that the number of ocean injuries at its trauma center in Atlantic City has more than doubled, to 24, from last year.
"The trauma center is on track to record its largest number of summer aquatic injuries, with spinal cord injuries being the leading diagnosis," Monica Titus, director of the AtlantiCare Neurosciences Institute and Trauma Center, TOLD The Press of Atlantic City (http://bit.ly/P0ALox). During the last week of July alone, the AtlantiCare trauma center recorded eight spinal cord injuries suffered by swimmers, Titus said. Two were related to watercraft incidents, and the other six involved body surfing.
AtlantiCare was unable to provide details of where the injuries occurred or what factors contributed to the injuries.
South Jersey beach patrol captains said many factors have led to more injuries — such as dangerous shore breaks, aging swimmers and higher water temperatures that draw crowds — and towns are starting to take a more preventive approach.
"When the break is really bad, we make sure we get the little kids out, the 3- to 6-year-olds, plus the older group," Ventnor Beach Patrol Capt. Bill Howarth said. "People that are 70 years old and don't have really good balance to begin with, a shore break can really whack you."
On the south end of Ventnor, wave breaks have become dangerous following this year's beach-replenishment project, Howarth said.
"At high tide, if you think that break is too dangerous, you tell people they are going to have to bathe a couple hundred yards away at a calmer beach," he said.
Ventnor has had one neck injury this year, Lt. Woodrow Ferry said, a kayaker who landed on his neck after being tossed by a wave.
"We let boogie boards in at every beach, but the beaches that have bad shore breaks right now, we've instructed them to let people know they have to boogie board at other beaches," Howarth said.
Long Beach Township has recorded nine neck or back injuries so far this year, beach supervisor Don Myers said. The average is 8.8 injuries per year, according to data on the Beach Patrol's website.
Myers said the increase may have to do with new tourists on the island who don't have an understanding of the strong sea break. He also said the Beach Patrol records any incident in which someone is strapped to a backboard as a back or neck injury. But the patrol is more likely now than ever to immobilize an injured swimmer on a backboard.
"If they complain of neck or back pain, we err on the side of caution," he said. "We'll package them up more readily because you never know when that injury might reveal itself."
Cape May Fire Chief Jerry Inderwies, whose department is in charge of ambulance calls, said Cape May's response to past spinal injuries has helped increase awareness, and the city has seen fewer injuries this season.
Past beach replenishments have forced the city to be proactive against injury.
After beach replenishments in the early '90s, a group from Ocean City, Md., visited Cape May to educate the Beach Patrol on how to treat back injuries. In 2008, Cape May began educating the public after beach-replenishment projects altered shore breaks, injuring surfers and swimmers.
"In conjunction with the Cape May Beach Patrol, Fire Department and the city, we posted 'Warning: beach break' signs, handed out brochures at the beach tag sites," he said. "That could be helping, or it could just be a year where, for some reason, the numbers are down and we can't explain it."
Cape May Beach Patrol Lt. Harry Back said it's normal for injury numbers to fluctuate, but he said education is key.
"I think the education side has most certainly helped," he said. "We haven't changed any of our policies in terms of what we allow or don't allow in the water. If it's really dangerous, we will pull people out of the water, but on a day-to-day basis, we rely on education."
Back said the way the Beach Patrol handles treatment has changed drastically.
"We've become a lot more cautious," he said. "I remember back in '87, when I started as a rookie, it was, if someone came up to you with a bloody nose and scraped face, you wiped them off, gave them some ice and sent them on their way.
"Today, that's not acceptable practice. If you get hit by a wave, you hit your head, we're going to treat you as a neck or back injury until somebody clears that and says that it's not."