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Ocean's Greatest Danger: Rip Currents Are Deadly but Avoidable

As summer approaches, people are thinking about the beach and other outdoor activities.

Summer also means that lifeguards along the East and Gulf coasts are prepared to deal with one of the greatest dangers: rip currents.

Rip currents are narrow, fast-moving channels of water that move away from the beach due to irregularities along the shoreline such as sandbars and piers, AccuWeather.com Meteorologist Andy Mussoline said.

More than 85 percent (more than 600 people) of all rescues during 2013 at the 5 miles of beach at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, were the result of rip currents, Ocean Rescue Supervisor David Elder of the Kill Devil Hills Fire Department said.

"Rips are a predictable hazard," Elder said. "With accurate and timely information, lifeguards work to decrease exposure to the hazards of not only rip currents, but all beach hazards."

If caught in a rip current, the best thing to do is to swim parallel to the shore out of the rip current, Elder said.

"Don't fight the current: It's basically like being on a treadmill," he said. "Once out of the current, swim back to the shore."

We must look for new ways to reach out to beachgoers and try to keep them safe, Elder said.

He is working on one way to better alert the public of rip current hazards: a rip-current forecast system at the National Weather Service.

The new forecast system predicts the likelihood of rip current occurrence given wave field and water level inputs from the Nearshore Wave Prediction System (a numerical wave and water level model), Oceanographer Greg Dusek of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Ocean Service said.

Dusek started the research about nine years ago while a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and received help from Elder and the Kill Devil Hills Ocean Rescue.

"With the model, we can provide a hazardous rip current forecast every couple kilometers along the coast, every three hours, out for at least 48 hours," Dusek said.

The forecast model will be tested on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, including Kill Devil Hills, and near Miami.

How to Survive a Rip Current:

1. Always stay calm.

2. Do not fight the current.

3. Swim parallel to the shoreline while in the current. Once free of the current, swim at an angle, away from the current and towards the shore.

4. If unable to escape the rip current by swimming, float or tread water. Once the current weakens, resume swimming at an angle.

5. If unable to reach the shore, draw attention to yourself by waving or calling for help.