EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a three part series looking at the dangers of Lake Michigan. Part one focused on why Lake Michigan is so dangerous, and how to avoid a drowning incident. Part three will discuss why it can be so hard to recover bodies from Lake Michigan.
Does your coastal town have a lifeguard on duty? What about a life ring or water safety classes and other measures to help educate or offer resources to prevent drownings?
The number of drownings in Lake Michigan is increasing every year, according to the Great Lakes Surf and Rescue Project, which states that the increase is due to more tourist activity in lakeside communities.
The nice weather in August and September acts as a draw, while it is also when there are the worst rip currents and incidents around break walls.
Dave Benjamin, executive director for Great Lakes Surf and Rescue Project, said lakeside communities entice visitors with the availability and beauty of Lake Michigan’s shores, so they should educate and protect those same visitors from the dangers of the lakeshore as well.
Benjamin also said water safety should be taught like fire safety and other public health campaigns.
“Water safety is not common sense,” Benjamin said. “The lake is the jewel, of Michigan. It is a big draw to tourists, and you can’t tell people ‘hey, come to our state, come to our beaches, and then tell them to use common sense. Especially if they’re not from the area.”
Benjamin said whenever somebody says a drowning victim should have used common sense, they don’t understand downing.
According to the Surf and Rescue Project, there is a stigma surrounding drowning, and people often blame the victim, the parents or caregivers or blame it on “Darwinism.”
However, Benjamin said many people do not know how dangerous the water can be, how common drowning is or have the basic swimming skills to keep themselves alive in a drowning situation.
“Today, in America, it is common sense that if your clothes catch on fire, to stop drop and roll,” Benjamin said. “It is common sense to wear a seatbelt. For kids today, common sense that if there is an active shooter, to run, hide or fight.
“How did those things become common sense? Mandated education and a public awareness effort. We don’t do that with water safety. So, we need to understand there is no common sense with water safety in this current time in this United States. No national water safety agenda. Again, looking at schools today, normally school age kids will run fire, tornado, shooter and earthquake drills, but little to no water safety or education. It is likely more school aged kids die drowning than by any of those other causes.”
He also said that if communities put out warning systems for gate piers, they need to enforce them.
“A lot of time you’ll see systems like fags, but if somebody goes out on the pier or goes swimming anyway, and something happens, officials say ‘the red flags were flying, they know better.’ Safety measures are not enforced, and people are not educated. You have to enforce them or educate the public, otherwise, you’re saying you did the bare minimum to protect yourself from liability. Cities and beaches can be sued for drownings.”
Benjamin said his work with the project started to document drownings and educate the public and lakefront communities of the danger. However, he says he’s seen little change in the 10 years the project has been advocating for water safety, and the deaths continue to increase.
“This continues year after year,” he said. “Nothing has really changed. You’ve got places like South Haven, where they’re trying to bring back lifeguards. Then you see other places where there is a known problem and there have been fatalities. They should know when the waves are rolling in, they should be restricting foot traffic on the piers. It is a difference between life or death. It sounds like the recent tragedy at Frankfort started with a dream vacation for the family, then they lost a 12-year-old boy.”
Benjamin said earlier in 2020, he was surfing when he saw bystanders pull out a drowning victim. He assisted with CPR, but the victim didn’t survive.
“I had five or six family members standing right there watching,” he said. “A 13-year-old boy was inconsolable. I can’t keep being as passive as I have been in the past. It has to change, and it has to change now. It is time for these cities and politicians to be held to the fire for these drownings. If there are no lifeguards or no education programs, it is leaning toward gross negligence.”
He also said outside of the immediate loss, drownings tear families apart.
“Often, working with family members of drowning victims, you often see a divide in the family,” Benjamin said. “Shame and blame follows.”
Ultimately, water safety and drowning needed to be addressed like a public heath issue, instead of a recreational one, according to Benjamin.
“Drowning is a public health issue, and it is treated like a recreational issue,” he said. “It needs to be treated and education needs to be funded like a public health issue — statewide and nationwide.”
LOOKING AT FRANKFORT
• In Frankfort, two people have drowned in recent months. Sept. 21, a 12-year-old boy from Tennessee was swept off the pier along with several family members. Family members made it out, but the boy went under and never came back up.
• In August, a 26-year-old man from Cincinnati, went swimming between the piers in Frankfort and was found floating by his father, who brought him to shore. According to witnesses, first responders were able to revive him. However, he later died at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City. According to Frankfort chief of police, Rob Lozowski, it was a calm day, and the cause of drowning was not known.
Josh Mills, superintendent for the City of Frankfort, said the city has made a number of improvements over the years to warn visitors and residents of the danger of walking on the pier and swimming at Frankfort Beach.
The city first looked into ways to warn visitors and residents to the dangers in 2000, after a Benzie County boy, Caleb Sutter, was washed off the pier and drowned.
A group was formed by his parents and other concerned people, and eventually the U.S. Army Corps of engineers allowed the city to put life-rings on the pier structure, as well as a memorial for Caleb on the beach near the pier which contains pier safety tips and a solar-powered phone that can be used to contact first response teams.
“I think we were one of the first harbors on the Great Lakes to install the life rings, and they’ve saved countless lives,” Mills said. “We’ve placed additional signage and we have the memorial warning people.”
Signs warning of rip currents can be found throughout the main area of the beach as well as in other coastal towns.
However, the recent tragedies have Mills thinking about some other options.
“In the past, we’ve talked about a flag system or putting a gate up,” he said. “We need to enhance signage with the caveat that people need to read and understand the signs. We’re having conversations about the flag system again. Maybe flags can be incorporated with the signage at the beach entrance. If it is red, don’t go on the breakwall, or don’t go past your waste in the water.”
Mills said an automatic gate or light system is also a possibility, tying it in with a new bathroom facility the city is planning to build on the beach.
“Maybe we can make a video on pier safety and display it at the bathroom, or have it shown at hotels and short term rentals,” he said. “We can make a pamphlet.”
Mills said after Caleb Sutter’s death, the U.S. Coast Guard held water and pier safety classes with area fifth grade students, but that has since ceased.
“We’re talking about lot of different things, and I don’t want to lose sight of what happened here and get bogged down,” he said. “I want to focus on the flag and lighting system. I did talk to the Army Corps of Engineers about some of these things, I think there could be some more opportunities. I want to enhance safety.”
He also said he has wanted to get the Coast Guard to return to staffing the small station at Frankfort on a year-round basis, or at least stay staffed through the autumn months.
Fall is when the weather conditions are most dangerous — but not so bad as to keep people from swimming or walking on the pier.
In 2016, the Coast Guard consolidated operations, and the station at Frankfort is now only open from about Memorial Day through Labor Day.
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