NOAA/USLA Rip Current Awareness Campaign

TitleNOAA/USLA Rip Current Awareness Campaign
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2007
AuthorsDavis, P
Conference NameWorld Conference on Drowning Prevention
Date Published09/2007
PublisherInternational Life Saving Federation
Conference LocationPorto, Portugal
Other Numbers01-04

­As a result of the hazard posed by rip currents, the United States Lifesaving Association and two branches of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – the National Weather Service and Sea Grant – got together to develop a nationwide program. That program began by assembling many of the known experts in the area from the fields of meteorology, oceanography, education, public protection and rescue.

The results have been many. An educational website was developed which is mirrored on the NOAA and USLA websites. Artwork for brochures and signs were developed, which are freely available for reprinting. Thousands of these brochures have been published and distributed. Signs have been posted on beaches throughout Florida and parts of California, as well as other parts of the US, typically funded by state or local governments or by Sea Grant. All material is available in English and Spanish.

One of the goals of this campaign was to coalesce a variety of somewhat disparate efforts into a single voice with a single message. The benefit of this is to ensure that people throughout the USA (and elsewhere) get a consistent and clear educational message that is not confined to regional variations, but has broad value.

Learning Outcomes
  1. Understanding how the alliance developed.
  2. Review the content of the program and how the information is disseminated.
  3. Discuss the next steps and future possibilities.
Full Text

As a result of the danger posed by rip currents, the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) and two branches of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)â€"the National Weather Service and NOAA Research (through its Sea Grant program)â€"partnered to develop a nationwide safety awareness campaign.


Rip currents are the greatest surf zone hazard to all beachgoers throughout the world. In the United States alone, where there is a relatively well-developed system of lifeguard patrols and beach advisory warnings, there are approximately 100 drownings reported each year that are a direct result of rip currents. The United States Lifesaving Association estimates that 80% of surf beach water rescues occur as a direct result of rip currents. To provide context, nearly 23,000 rip current rescues by lifeguards are estimated annually in the state of California alone.

Rip currents are channelled currents of water flowing away from shore at surf beaches. They typically extend from near the shoreline, through the surf zone and past the line of breaking waves. (The surf zone is the area between the high tide levels on the beach to the seaward side of breaking waves.) Rip currents form when waves break near the shoreline, piling up water between the breaking waves and the beach. One of the ways this water returns to sea is to form a rip current, a narrow stream of water moving swiftly offshore, often perpendicular to the shoreline. Rip currents have been measured as fast as eight feet per secondâ€"faster than an Olympic swimmer.

Drowning deaths occur when people pulled offshore are unable to keep themselves afloat and swim to shore. This may be due to any combination of fear, panic, exhaustion or lack of swimming skills. Ironically, it is fairly easy to identify and to avoid a rip current once someone knows what he or she is looking for. It is also fairly easy to survive or escape if one knows what to do.

For many years, various groups have worked to minimize this risk by educating the public, with various degrees of effectiveness. Often, the message was presented in very different ways, using different strategies.

The Plan

In 2003, the United States Lifesaving Association, in partnership with NOAA's National Weather Service and the National Sea Grant Program, began working together to raise awareness about the dangers of rip currents. The partners convened many known experts on rip currents from the fields of meteorology, oceanography (coastal processes), education, public protection and rescue. The goal of the awareness campaign and research is to reduce the number of rip current-related fatalities. NOAA's ongoing research efforts seek to further develop and improve the ability to predict the occurrence and strength of rip currents.

One of the goals of the safety awareness campaign was to coalesce a variety of disparate outreach efforts into a unified educational message. A standardized message is critical in order to ensure that people throughout the U.S. (and elsewhere) receive the same clear and consistent safety information, whether visiting a beach located on the Atlantic or Pacific oceans, or in the Great Lakes. To give an example, even the term “rip current” has many regional variations, including “rip tide”, “undertow”, “run out”, “wash out”, and many others.

Once the partners agreed to the terminology (rip current) and to the basic direction of the campaign, a working group was formed to develop specific projects that could be used to educate different segments of the public about the dangers of rip currents and how to avoid them. The team developed a portfolio of products under the moniker, “Break the Grip of the Rip.” The products include: signage/posters, stickers, DVDs of various lengths, a fact sheet, talking points for a standard presentation, online games, and a travelling banner display for exhibitions and conferences.

Each product includes blank space for a sponsor, association, or agency to co-brand, adding its name and logo, provided that the content is not modified or altered in any way. For example, on several beaches in the U.S., there are now standardized rip current warning signs which include the NOAA, USLA and local agency/municipality logos on the bottom.

Because there was limited funding for such an ambitious project, the group decided to focus on designing all of the materials and making them available online to anyone throughout the world at no charge. The plan is that as additional funding becomes available, this material will be mass produced and distributed in various ways.

The Portfolio of Products Available to the Public Includes

Brochure, Beach Sign/Poster
These can be printed directly off of the website in a low-resolution format, or downloaded in a high-resolution format. Then, a printer or sign maker can reproduce these materials in whatever size, or on whatever material is appropriate. More than 10,000 signs have been distributed throughout the U.S. and Mexico by Sea Grant, coastal agencies and municipalities.

The team produced an 8-minute DVD about the dangers of rip currents, how to avoid them, and what to do if one encounters a rip current. The DVD was developed in a “modular” format so that each part can stand alone, or, the segments can be used collectively for teaching purposes. The footage can serve as both a teaching tool, and as the basis for a general presentation about rip currents. In addition, there are 1-minute and 30-second versions of the DVD. These can be used as presentation tools, or as commercial spots for TV, closed cable systems (hotels or municipalities), or as lead-ins for movies, etc.

Rip Current Fact Sheet
To aid a presenter who is not intimately familiar with rip currents, the team developed a “Rip Current Fact Sheet” that provides general background information.

Talking Points
A sheet with “Rip Current Talking Points” was produced to help to guide a presentation and ensure that speakers deliver a clear and consistent safety message to audiences.

The group also designed stickers. As with the poster/sign and brochure, the sticker includes a diagram of a rip current with an iconic swimmer escaping by swimming parallel to the beach. The sticker also includes web information and the slogan, “Break the Grip of the Rip.” It is meant as a stand-alone public education tool, and/or as a “gimmie” that accompanies an educational talk involving the DVD and accompanying material.

Power Point
Accompanying the above products is a Power Point presentation. This follows the basic format of the video, outlining what a rip current is, how it is identified, why a rip current is dangerous, how to avoid, what do if caught, and what to do if one sees someone caught in a rip current.

WPI Group
In 2006, the team invited undergraduate students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) to explore the most potent and cost-effective means of reaching teenage audiences through traditional (e.g. radio, TV) and/or emerging media (e.g. blogs, wikis, text messaging, podcasts, etc.). The goalâ€"to effectively communicate the rip current/beach safety message to teens (who often fall victim to rip currents).

The WPI students conducted formal and informal “market research” using qualitative and quantitative research methodologies in order to determine how to target the outreach campaign to this age group. The students then developed a marketing communications plan outlining three major recommendations: internet chat bots, educational enhancement, and public service announcements. NOAA hopes to implement these recommendations over the next several years, if funding allows.

Additional Outputs that May be of Interest, Include the Following

Rip Current Forecasts
NOAA National Weather Service forecast offices that serve coastal areas, issue Surf Zone Forecasts with rip current outlooks when rip currents are a threat. These are available online, through the media, and are broadcast over NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards.

Rip Current Awareness Week

The first full week of June has been designated by NOAA as Rip Current Awareness Week in the U.S.

3. Discussion

The group consensus was that, working within budget constraints, more people could be reached using a web-based approach. There is a great need to educate the public, both in and outside of the U.S., about the dangers of rip currents. By posting each of the team's products online and making everything available for download, the hope was to make the information available to the greatest number of people possible. Anyone with internet access can utilize this entire packet of information and initiate a rip current awareness campaign in any corner of the world.

4. Conclusion

Take Home Message

If you remember nothing else, our hope is that you take two basic messages home. The first is that rip currents are deadly, but with a few basic precautions and a little information, swimmers can stay safe. The second is that lifesaving organizations and members of the public can find information about rip currents, and how to avoid them online at: and


The following people should be acknowledged for their dedication and hard work in bringing this safety awareness campaign to fruition:

USLA: Chris Brewster, Rob Williams, Peter Hartsock
Sea Grant: Amy Painter, Jim Murray
National Weather Service: Ron Gird, Deborah Jones, Margaret Fowke

Digital Media: