Though Craig Barker never worked as a lifesaver, that’s exactly what he’s become.

Barker, mayor of Destin, Fla., is a local who owns Kore Gear Inc., a fishing reel technology and design firm, and until he came to office, Destin had no active lifeguard patrol. One reason for this is that until 2000, the Gulf Coast resort community never experienced a drowning along its public beaches, according to Barker, who grew up surfing and fishing regularly. Around that time, the community experienced a change in water currents, which created stronger, dangerous undertows.

Elected to his first mayoral term in March 2002, Barker recognized the importance of maintaining safe water, and working with Chris Brewster, president of the United States Lifesaving Association, he spearheaded the creation of the city’s first professional lifeguard staff.

Today, Destin’s lifeguard staff is active from approximately February through October. It includes a series of guard stations, a crew of mobile guards and a boat patrol for days when the surf is particularly rough.

“The program has been a success,” Barker reports. “In the year prior to the program’s existence, we experienced eight drowning deaths. Since the program’s inception, more than 1,000 individuals have been rescued. There’s been only one drowning, and there were complicating factors involved in that incident.”

Destin is a relatively small city, but Barker’s actions have had a big impact on the community and surrounding areas. “The existence of the Destin program has encouraged neighboring beaches in Okaloosa and South Walton counties to create municipal lifeguard agencies as well, which has resulted in the avoidance of death in numerous cases,” Brewster says.

Implementing the lifeguard program also has impacted tourism positively. “Residents and visitors to Destin desire to swim at beaches where lifesaving services are on patrol, and now they routinely select Destin over alternative locations for this very reason,” Barker notes. “Our No. 1 asset is our beach and harbor, and if we’re going to advertise the community of Destin as a friendly resort fishing community, then we have a responsibility to protect the people who come here. We had dangerous conditions, and part of a leader’s job is to be proactive and act to better position the community for the future.”

When it comes to aquatics, Barker is indeed looking toward the future of his community. He was successful in establishing an innovative partnership program with Henderson Beach State Park that allows Destin residents to purchase a decal giving them free access to the beachfront park. The city also recently celebrated the grand opening of a community swimming pool. So, for aquatics lovers, Barker’s a lifesaver in more ways than one.