"It's a 360-degree lifeguarding job," said Jack Brooks, a member of the Ocean City Beach Patrol who has been on the job every summer since 1974.
Although most people associate sand shovels with those that match children's pails, Brooks said, it's the adult-size implements that should be red flags for lifeguards. Beach patrol members are instructed to keep an eye on the daily shovel brigade and talk with beachgoers about any usually large excavations.
"It takes a while for the Etch-A-Sketch effect to work and remove all the big holes, so in the meantime we want to avoid the problem in the first place," he said. "People can get sprained ankles from accidentally walking into one of the holes . . . emergency vehicles can get stuck. We tell people to dig wide, not deep."
But some people insist on their mega-size implements.
"I like to have the right tool for the job. But I'm careful; I don't go crazy digging holes that could hurt somebody," said Ken Simms, 34, of Turnersville, as he arrived at the 44th Street beach Thursday afternoon carrying a beach chair, a cooler, and a three-foot-long shiny green shovel bought for just this occasion.
Long Branch has no regulations regarding beach digging but now may consider some, Mayor Adam Schneider said after Tuesday's tunnel accident.
The child's mother was nearby when the collapse occurred. The boy was trapped for about 10 minutes before the beach patrol was able to free him. In such accidents, the weight and pressure of the sand collapse a victim's chest and make it impossible to breathe.
Rescuers performed CPR on Ezra as soon as he was pulled from the hole. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died about 24 hours later.
Most Shore municipalities post detailed regulations at beach entrances about everything from paddle ball to picnicking. Deep digging has not been a huge problem, officials said, so they have not set depth limits or other restrictions.
A general rule, according to some Shore lifeguards trained to monitor the water while keeping an eye on beach activities, is that beachgoers should dig no holes deeper than knee height of the youngest person in their party.
But some say the rules regarding beach digging should be more explicit, according to B. Chris Brewster, president of the U.S. Lifesaving Association.
"The primary goal of a lifeguard is to prevent injury . . . their role on the beach extends beyond the water," Brewster said.
On average, about 10 deaths and dozens of injuries related to beach-sand activities occur annually in the United States, Brewster said. A 2007 New England Journal of Medicine study found that in the previous 10 years, there had been 31 fatalities and 21 serious injuries in recreational sand collapses on beaches. Most of the victims were males between ages 3 and 21, according to the report.
Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University, said the need for people to dig at the beachfront, especially children, comes from a feeling of "being challenged to something . . . to engage their environment."
"And the beach is a natural place for that something," Farley said. "Beaches are overwhelmingly positive places, but there are risks there, just like everywhere else, and people always need to be on guard."
Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at www.philly.com/downashore.