Officials talk water safety ahead of summer season

MARQUETTE — With rising temperatures, budding flowers and construction galore, Memorial Day weekend has been deemed the unofficial start of the summer season.

Locally, emergency first responders are preparing for the influx of visitors, particularly those looking to take advantage of the area’s many opportunities for water recreation.

Starting Saturday, lifeguards will take up their posts at each of the city’s beaches, where they’ll be on watch 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week through Labor Day weekend, said Marquette City Fire Department Chief Ian Davis.

While guarded beaches offer an extra layer of protection, Davis said citizens should still be aware of the potential dangers associated with swimming and other forms of water recreation.

“We prefer if people are in the water that they use the buddy system,” he said. “Also, parents, don’t just drop off your kids at the beach. You’re still expected to keep an eye on them.”

Floatation devices are also recommended.

Swimmers should stay away from dangerous areas, such as Picnic Rocks, the rocky outcrops along Lighthouse Point and the water near the Mattson Lower Harbor Park docks, he said.

Monitoring weather conditions, wave height and water temperatures is also important.

“Even though we’re opening the beaches, the water is still very cold,” said Davis, adding that the water temperature in Lake Superior is currently around 45 degrees. “Muscles stiffen up if it’s too cold, and at that point it’s hard to swim.”

Sgt. Ryan Grim of the Marquette City Police Department said it’s common for swimmers to overestimate their capabilities when entering the water.

“Swimming in the lake is vastly different than swimming in a pool,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of shoreline here — you need to be cognizant of the dangers.”

The city of Marquette’s Beach Flag Advisory System, which lets people know if it’s safe to swim, is also slated to go into effect this weekend.

The flags, ranging from green, indicating a low hazard, to red, a high hazard with waves more than 4 feet, can be found at every guarded city beach. A digital version of the system is available online at www.mqtcty.org.

During the summer months, MPD park patrol officers monitor beaches and waterfront areas. All patrol vehicles carry lifesaving equipment, and all officers are trained on water rescues, said Grim.

“It’s a big part of our job here being a waterfront community,” he said.

The Marquette City Fire Department, in addition to lifeguards, also has near shore water rescue capability, allowing personnel to respond in less than five minutes after an incident is reported.

Air support is also accessible, said Davis, with Valley Med Flight out of Escanaba.

The U.S. Coast Guard also responds to incidents by boat, said Davis, providing assistance on short notice.

A near-drowning

experience

After his own near-drowning experience, Dave Benjamin, Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project executive director of public relations and project management, vowed to raise awareness and educate the public on the signs of drowning, and what do do if in a water emergency.

It was the day after Christmas in 2010, and Benjamin was surfing in Lake Michigan near Portage, Indiana.

He miscalculated a wave, fell off his board and had the wind knocked out of him. His surfboard was no longer tethered to his ankle, and cold waves continued to pummel him as he tried to a take a breath.

“(It was) complete panic,” Benjamin said in a video detailing the incident. “I’m thinking, you know, ‘this is it for me.'”

He said he was demonstrating all of the signs of drowning — he was facing shore, his mouth was at water level, his was head tilted back, his body was vertical and he was making a “climbing ladder” motion.

But then, he recalled an article he had recently read about drowning.

“I got to the surface and I put my arms out and my feet up, and I floated,” he said. “I realized I could survive this accident.”

While Benjamin was able to calm himself down and deploy the skills necessary to survive a water emergency, many are not.

According to statistics gathered by the GLSRP, 98 people drowned in the Great Lakes in 2016 — a 78 percent increase over the previous year.

“We really just look at (the increase) as weather related,” said Benjamin. “It was a pretty hot summer. With more beach days and more people going to the beach, there are more opportunities for something to go wrong.”

With another mild winter and spring, this year’s weather is expected to be similar.

Education and awareness

While weather seems to play a role in the recent spike in water-related deaths, drowning is a vastly neglected public health issue, according to the World Health Organization. It’s the third leading cause of accidental or unintentional injury death worldwide, with an estimated 360,000 fatalities occurring annually.

“It’s going to continue to be a leading cause of accidental death until we start to look at the bigger picture,” said Benjamin. “There’s a huge disconnect. Information is not being delivered effectively or efficiently to the public.”

According to the American Red Cross, 54 percent of Americans do not have the basic swimming abilities to save their own lives in a water emergency.

That statistic is based on a controlled setting, such as a pool, said Benjamin. But when you add in wind, waves, dangerous currents and cold water temperatures, that percentage would likely be higher.

“I feel like that would go up to about 90 percent,” Benjamin said.

Like the widely known “stop, drop and roll” technique used when clothing catches fire, Benjamin said everyone should know “flip, float and follow.”

“If you want to live, you have to stay at the surface of the water and continue breathing,” he said. “If you can’t survive the initial drowning experience, you’re not going to make it out.”

If in a water emergency, swimmers should flip over onto their back, float to keep their head above water, calm themselves down and conserve energy, and then follow the current to assess which way it’s flowing.

Then, either swim perpendicular to the flow until reaching safety, or continue floating and try to signal for help if too tired to swim.

Benjamin and Bob Pratt, GLSRP’s executive director of education, are currently traveling throughout the Midwest to provide in-school presentations on water safety.

They believe it’s the best approach to spreading information quickly, having completed more than 450 presentations in seven of the eight Great Lakes states.

“They have fire drills, tornado drills, shooting drills and even earthquake drills in school,” said Benjamin. “But it’s more likely school-aged children will die from drowning. Why is there not water safety curriculum?”

With these presentations, as well as additional outreach, training, public awareness and preparedness efforts, GLSRP hopes to reduce the number of Great Lakes drownings.

“It’s really simple. It’s not rocket science. It’s just bullet-pointed information that is not being delivered,” he said. “If people knew, they would be much safer and it would cause a huge decrease in drowning deaths.”

The stigma surrounding drowning, as well as the lack of industry-backing and scarce funding, also contribute to the epidemic, said Benjamin.

“One of the main contributors is the stigma — when a drowning happens, from a public point of view, people blame the victim, blame the parents or blame it on Darwinism,” he said. “It gives the public a false sense of security that drowning wouldn’t happen to them, that it only happens to stupid people. It’s false. People think drowning happens to other people, until they become the other people.”

Local efforts

In the Marquette area, Davis said local officials have really stepped up in recent years to ensure the safety of beach patrons.

Following a pair of drownings near Picnic Rocks in 2010, Davis said the city bulked up its efforts in waterfront safety through the creation of a waterfront safety task force, specialized trainings and investments in lifesaving equipment.

“Luckily, we haven’t had any drowning deaths (within city limits) since 2010 when we really ramped up our capabilities with near shore water rescue,” Davis said.

The fire department has also invited emergency responders in the area to participate in a training on its new E.M.I.L.Y device — a 4-foot long remote controlled buoy that can cruise through rip currents and heavy waves at speeds of 22 mph to reach distressed swimmers.

The training will take place next month at the Cinder Pond Marina.

Kelsie Thompson can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. Her email address is kthompson@miningjournal.net.