"At the time (before the fire department took over), basically they just had personnel along the beach, and it wasn't that much personnel," Sasser said.

"When we took it over, we basically set it up where our (all-terrain vehicles) would be bigger, so we could carry equipment on them. We've got them set up like mini-ambulances. We're not only dealing with water-related incidents, we're dealing with heat exhaustion, heart attacks, strokes."

Sasser says the department improved its radio system, bought more equipment and required more training for lifeguards, so, naturally, their pay increased.

Tybee Island has 10 lifeguard towers (St. Simons has four), Sasser said, each staffed with two lifeguards. Sasser says his first priority is the safety of the staff, so guards work in pairs to allow for more breaks and team responses.

He attributes increased staff and equipment during the past year to saving at least four lives. Emergencies in unguarded areas were reached more quickly with all-terrain vehicles, and medical equipment on them meant faster and better responses.

But the improvements did not occur overnight.

"I understand budgets and dealing with restraints. Sometimes you can't jump in at 110 percent, so you add more next year," Sasser said.

City Manager Schleicher says investing in public education was an important step in Tybee Island's beach safety improvements. Not only were issues with tides and currents a problem for visitors, but ocean creatures, especially jellyfish, were causing problems.

Tybee Island adopted a flag warning system, and worked with the local media to inform the public of what it meant. Improving safety, though, is an ongoing process, she said.

"There have been a number of instances where lives have been saved," said Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman. "In terms of the money, is it justified? Absolutely, and I think it's money very, very well spent.

"We've increased pay so we can attract better-quality lifeguards. We're always being asked by the fire department to add more money to the budget to cover more areas. That's what we think we should focus on.

"It's a never-ending process, it's never going to be perfect. But I think the money you spend is very worthwhile."