What Are Lifeguard Flags? | Understanding Beach Warnings

The beach is an ever-changing and dynamic environment. It might be enjoyable, but it can also be unpredictable and dangerous for those who are unaware of its potential dangers.

This is why professional lifeguards who know their way around the beach utilize a system of lifeguard flags and signs to inform visitors about the crucial information they need to know.

Understanding lifeguard flags can easily differentiate a lazy and enjoyable afternoon at the beach from a traumatic trip to the emergency room. What are lifeguard flags? Read on to find out what each color means for your day at the beach and more.

What Are Lifeguard Flags?

Lifeguard Flags have been used by lifeguard agencies in the US and worldwide for decades to inform swimmers of conditions, warn of hazards, mark safer swimming zones, and inform beachgoers about regulated areas.

The Worldwide Life Saving Federation produced international warning flag criteria in 2004 to maintain global consistency.

The International Standards Organization has partly adopted these rules, and the USLA (United States Lifesaving Association) endorsed them. By adhering to these warning flag rules regularly, lifeguard agencies may guarantee that everyone understands what they mean and improve their effectiveness.

These flags are only allowed to be used on beaches when USLA-certified lifeguards are on duty. Flags are not a replacement for adequately trained and equipped rescuers; instead, they are tools to employ around the coast.

How Do Lifeguard Flags Work?

To be truly effective, the usage of warning flags to alert the public to current hazard levels must be constant, based on objective, measurable criteria that can be registered, tracked, and then adjusted when conditions change.

They should be accompanied by initiatives to educate people about the significance of the lifeguard flags.

The state of the ocean varies across the United States. In some regions, conditions that are deemed mild may be viewed as a serious safety issue in others. As a result, the USLA recommends that particular local criteria be devised in each location where lifeguard flags are used and that the public be made aware of such measures.

Lifeguard Flag Definitions

Here are the most common lifeguard flags you may need to understand and heed to keep you safe in the waters and make the most of your beach trip.

Yellow Flag

Lifeguard Flags YellowThe danger level is moderate. There are moderate waves or currents. The entry of weak swimmers into the water is discouraged. Others should be treated with extra caution and attention.

Yellow flags indicate that it’s going to be a hard day in the waves, that there are significant waves, or that there’s a small rip current. We encourage adult supervision at all times in yellow flag conditions (or actually any surf conditions). If there are kids, make sure they’re wearing life vests.

The most prevalent type of flag seen is the yellow flag. Before swimming in an area with a yellow flag, you should take safety measures.

Red Flag

Lifeguard Flags RedThere is a significant risk. The presence of a red flag denotes that the surf is particularly hazardous. This could be due to large waves, severe rip currents, or other potentially dangerous situations. Unless you are a really skilled swimmer, you should avoid going into the ocean when the red flag is flying.

If you really must go out under red flag circumstances, do not enter the water with children, and always swim with a friend. Finally, this flag means that you should only swim at your own risk, and even then, you should proceed with extreme caution.

The red sign indicates a “High hazard,” as defined by the ILSA.

Double Red

Lifeguard Flags Double Red FlagThe ILSA describes a red flag above another red flag as “Extremely high hazard. Water is closed to public use.” This flag is only displayed in the most severe surf conditions. In these situations, we strongly advise avoiding entering the sea.

At all costs, avoid entering into surf conditions with double red flags.


Lifeguard Flags PurpleThere are marine pests such as jellyfish, stingrays, and other marine species that can cause mild injury in the ocean.

It would be best to surf at your own risk with purple flags. Before entering, always check with your lifeguard because marine pests could range from bioluminescent algae to Box Jellyfish. We strongly advise against entering purple flag situations. The sting of a hazardous jellyfish can be lethal.

However, note that this flag does not indicate the presence of sharks.

Red/Yellow (Halved Red Over Halved Yellow)

Lifeguard Flags Red/YellowThis flag means Lifeguards are stationed in the vicinity. These flags can be used in pairs to signify a defined area or zone along a beach or waterfront that is most closely overseen or patrolled by qualified lifeguards and where swimming and surfing are allowed.

These flags can be used individually to indicate that swimming is permitted in front of the flagged area and that a qualified lifeguard supervises the area.

Black/White (Quartered)

Lifeguard Flags Black/White (Quartered)These lifeguard flags can be used in pairs to identify a specified area or zone along a beach or waterfront for people who use surfboards and other non-powered watercraft.

The conditions are ideal for surfing in this area, and the flag warns non-surfers to stay away to keep both surfers and beachgoers safe.

Yellow With Central Black Ball

Lifeguard Flags Yellow With Central Black Ball

This lifeguard flag means non-powered watercraft, such as surfboards, are prohibited.

Orange Windsock

Lifeguard Flags Orange Windsock

This cone-shaped lifeguard flag is used to show the direction of offshore winds and that using inflatable objects in the ocean is dangerous.

Red/White (Quartered)

Lifeguard Flags Red/White (Quartered)The quartered red and white lifeguard flag means emergency evacuation is required. In the event of an emergency, swimmers should exit the water.

Emergencies can include but are not limited to the presence of dangerous marine species, such as sharks, contaminated water, or lifeguards performing a search of the water area, such as looking for a lost child. (Alternatively, the double red flag could be used.)

Safety FlagColorMeaningPantone (PMS)Shape
YellowMedium HazardPMS - 124Rectangle
RedHigh HazardPMS - 186Rectangle
Red Over RedWater Closed To Public UsePMS - 186Rectangles
PurpleMarine Pests PresentPMS - 266Rectangle
Red Over YellowRecommended Swimming Area with Lifeguard SupervisionPMS - 186
PMS - 124
Black and White (Quartered)Watercraft AreaPMS - 6
Rectangular flag with four
equal rectangular quarters.
Black upper left and lower
right. White upper right and
lower left.
Yellow Flag with BlackWatercraft Use Prohibited (No surfboards)PMS - 124
PMS - 6
Rectangular yellow flag with
central black ball shape,
500mm diameter.
Orange WindsockOffshore Winds Present, Inflatables ProhibitedPMS - 166Cone shape 500mm at the
hoist-tapering to 300mm x
1500mm long
Red and White QuarteredEmergency EvacuationPMS - 186Rectangular flag with four
equal rectangular quarters.
Red upper left and lower
right. White upper right and
lower left.

Safety Tips

Supervise Children at All Times

It’s critical to keep an eye on kids and young adults at all times. They should always be accompanied by at least one adult when swimming.

Have a Swim Buddy

Always go out in the surf with a partner, whether you’re surfing, swimming, or bodyboarding. If you ever come into contact with a large wave or a rip current, this will help keep you safe.

Swim at Lifeguarded Beaches

If allowed, surf or swim at lifeguarded beaches in the designated area, close to the lifeguard post. Always stay within a black and white flag when surfing or boarding. Stay within the red and yellow flag zones if you’re swimming.

Swim Parallel Not Directly Inwards in Rip Currents

Swim parallel and slowly towards the shore if you encounter a severe rip current. You will be drawn in even more if you try to swim directly inwards. If you’re not sure you can swim, raise your hand and ask a lifeguard or adjacent beachgoers for assistance if the beach isn’t lifeguarded.

Always pay attention to lifeguard flags, warning signs, and local lifeguard instructions to avoid getting caught in a rip current.

If In Doubt, Don’t Go Out

Don’t go out into the ocean if you’re exhausted, going for a session alone, or unsure of your swimming abilities. You never know when or if a rip current will form, so it’s always safer to stay out than to get in when you’re fatigued.

Rest up and try the following day again when the weather is better.

Head In If Conditions Are Bad

It’s time to leave the ocean and head home if it’s getting dark or starting to storm if the waves are growing large, if it’s getting windy, or even if you hear thunder in the distance.

It’s essential to be safe and prepare ahead: don’t go to the beach on a day when you know it’ll rain.


Safety signs are put in place to alert you to the presence of both permanent and sporadic hazards in the environment. For long-term dangers, some of these indicators are permanent.

On the other hand, others are placed by lifeguards each day to show you the hazards that are present that day in a specific location, such as rip currents, which can change places on different days.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q: What does a white flag with a black shark mean?

A: The presence of a black flag indicates that spotting conditions are bad, but no sharks have been spotted. A white flag with a black shark diagram suggests that a shark is present near the beach, and beachgoers should exit the water immediately.

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