Consider this a “State of the Lakes” statement, or a call to arms. If you’re not familiar with me or the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Program there is a short biography at the end of the document. To bring you up to date: There have been 96 fatal drownings so far this year. This is an increase from last year’s total of 87. The total since 2010 is now 257. Like previous years on the Great Lakes, most of these drownings occurred when there was significant wave, current or wind action. Because of this we believe the most effective strategies to reduce drownings must address these conditions and how to deal with them.

We believe that if we are to make significant progress in reducing these tragedies we must partner with a wide range of stakeholders  and approach the problem from several fronts with  a unified message and strategy. The National Drowning Prevention Alliance in partnership with the Swim for Life Foundation has identified three areas that must be covered if we are to address the drowning epidemic.

The “Safer 3”  
Safer water includes things like signage at beaches. Throw rings and call boxes on our piers and breakwalls. It also includes rescue stations on our open water beaches.
Safer Swimmers includes swimming lessons, rip current education and loaner lifejacket programs.
Safer Response includes training police and fire agencies in proper rescue techniques, a community CPR program so that rapid resuscitation can begin ASAP. It also includes training beachgoers, surfers, and people who regularly visit our beaches to recognize dangerous situations and to safely rescue people from drowning.

I’d like to visit each of these areas in greater detail looking at where we are and where we can make improvements. PLEASE do not take this as a criticism if you are not currently using these methods or materials or are using materials we think can be improved upon. Our overarching goal is the preservation of lives.


Beach signs. The most common rip current sign on the Great Lakes is the sign developed by NOAA/USLA (See attachment 1). Unfortunately this sign has limited applicability to many Great Lakes rip currents. According to the National Weather Service, 66% of our rip incidents involve structures. At best, the sign addresses only a third of our incidents. To complicate matters, the message to “swim parallel” becomes confusing when a structure is involved: should one swim toward the rocks next to the pier and risk being smashed on the rocks or swim away from the structure?
A sign found at the Southern end of Lake Michigan is even more confusing: it states; “White water kills. Do not swim when surf is breaking”. (See attachment 2)  While the message is trying to educate people that anytime there are breaking waves there is the possibility of rip currents, it is in direct contradiction with numerous sources that advise areas with breaking waves are safer. Dr. Rob Brander has a chapter in his Essential Beach Book called “White is Nice, Green is Mean”.  His advice is to “swim towards whitewater” and further explains that “Whitewater is good because it means the water is shallower and the whitewater will help bring you back towards shore.  Another example of a possible contradiction is a picture in the rip current brochure widely distributed in the United States  (Attachment 3).  This shows the rip current as an area without the whitewater of a breaking wave. In this, case the “whitewater” is the safest place to be.
The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project is currently working with the area Sea Grants to develop a more universal water safety sign based on the Flip. Float and Follow strategy. We hope to have the sign available by the start of the swimming season 2013.

Rescue Equipment. A wide variety of rescue equipment is available on our beaches. Michigan State Parks have throw rings widely available and row boats. Throw rings have been used in many, many rescues. On July 9th 2012 a dozen people were rescued at the Holland Pier using throw rings. This device is the safest, most effective tool for shore based rescues. If your community is not utilizing them you should be. Grand Haven, Michigan has a unique way of addressing possible theft of the rings: the rings on the Grand Haven pier are electronically monitored by  the Public Safety Department AND a beach camera automatically zooms to the area in question. Officers can see conditions at the site in real time.

I’m not aware of any rescues made using the row boats on our beaches, perhaps someone from the State Parks can comment. Any in-water rescue increases the risk to the rescuers. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the row boats and replace them with lifejackets and rescue boards.

The Mackinac Water Safety Task Force has a unique shoreline largely devoid of structures. They have had good success with small rescue stations that contain a lifejacket, throw ring and rescue board. The stations are small sheds and clearly labeled with water safety messages.

Call boxes are used in some areas and are a great tool. Solar panel and cell phone technology have made them possible in remote areas. These boxes also address the problem of landmarks/ jurisdictions on the beaches, that is: people rarely know where jurisdictional lines are, on our beaches. Drownings really are a time critical emergency, knowing the exact location can make a big difference in a successful  resuscitation.

Loaner lifejackets are another piece of rescue equipment that also fits in the “Safer Swimmers” category. These programs may provide lifejackets at the beach on a first come first served basis or maybe coordinated by fire departments whereby citizens pick up and drop off the jackets from the fire station. While there are issues with proper sizing and maintenance, we believe a greater acceptance and use of PFD loaner programs can save lives. 

Several Great Lakes communities have memorials at their beaches. While they don’t fit neatly into the SAFER 3 categories, we believe they play an important function and should be considered. When beachgoers see memorials, they are reminded that the Lakes can be dangerous. I have seen memorials adorned with flowers or small religious symbols and can attest that they carry a powerful message. They also serve as a comfort and source of inspiration for loved ones.

One key component of SAFER WATER is research. There are several groups conducting research on the deadly currents of the Lakes. New submersible rovers are measuring currents and giving us valuable information, there are new buoys deployed on the Lakes giving us real-time data, and groups using doppler technology to study the beaches. As we learn more about the interaction of our structures and these currents we maybe ably to modify or create safer structures.  There are several beaches on the East Coast using social media (twitter, facebook etc..) to give real time beach advisories. New technologies and social media will play a big part in shaping the safer water
of the future.



We know that poor or no swimming ability is a common factor in many of these drownings. Typically the better a swimmers ability the less likely they are to drown. When we can increase swimming ability and provide rip current awareness like the Flip, Float and Follow strategy we will go a long way in preventing drownings. We know who drowns and where: males drown at 4x the rate of females and minorities drown at 2-3 times the rates of non-minorities. We need to target these risk groups with our educational messages and learn to swim programs. In Ontario Canada there is a program aimed at third grade students and is creating a generation of water-safe kids learn more at       

Closer to home, the Holland Aquatics Center has a grant program that brings school children to the pool to teach swimming and water safety.  Also in Holland there is a Church Group that brings inner-city children to the beach for surfing lessons and also teaches water safety.!__surf-camps

We should support and expand these programs throughout the region.

Unfortunately many of the visitors to our beaches come from inland areas where we control neither the availability of swimming lessons nor the access to water safety information. There are several strategies that may address the latter: We suggest a coordinated water safety message imbedded throughout the community. Most beach communities are part of a shoreline association that publishes a ‘shoreline guide’. We will be creating a template for an article that maybe easily modified for each community.

We also suggest partnering with hotel/ motels putting water safety information in their facilities. If there are restaurants which use placemats, a portion or the whole mat maybe available for water safety information at low or no cost.

Many coastal communities have some form of water safety event. One of the best and most effective is the Beach Safety Challenge in Grand Haven Michigan.  

Consider partnering with the police and fire agencies in your community, possible the Coast Guard if there is a station nearby. Other possible partners are the YMCA, Red Cross, Safe Kids Coalitions, hospitals and insurance companies. You can partner with the same agencies to create lifejacket loaner programs, swimming lessons or other programs. These programs bring stakeholders together with a common message and play an important role in community water safety. They may also be expanded to address drowning prevention on inland lakes, and in home pools.



The simple fact is that drowning is extremely time critical, when resuscitation is begun within the first two minutes of a submersion the likelihood of survival is greater than 90%, whereas, after 10 minutes it’s less than 15%. Even the best police and fire agencies are usually too late.  Lifeguards are the most effective response agencies; unfortunately very few Great Lakes beaches employ guards. The major roadblocks to lifeguards are liability, financing and training. Regarding financing: consider that a single multi-day, multi –jurisdictional body recovery can cost tens of thousands of dollars and at the end of the day it is still a body recovery. Training is an interesting issue: neither the Red Cross nor the YMCA teaches lifeguards to work at surf beaches. This puts not only the beach going public at risk but may put the lifeguards themselves at risk.

There are currently a handful of beaches that train lifeguards to a surf beach standard. We are looking at bringing surf lifeguard training to the region. Please contact us for more information.

Some municipalities have or are considering closing beaches when conditions become rough.  I believe that closing beaches is rarely an acceptable option and is complicated by unintended consequences that may put the public at more risk. For example: are you going to send police officers into the water to remove people? Swimmers who want to enter the water will simply wait until the police leave or will move to a beach that is not patrolled. These remote beaches are typically further from lifesaving resources and simply move the potential drowning to a location that is more dangerous. I do believe that we can, and should limit access to piers and breakwalls when surf is washing over them.  Careful consideration should be made for surfers who use the pier to access the water. Surfers are a big asset in the water and have made hundreds of rescues on the Great Lakes; welcome them to your beach!

Police/ fire response: most police and fire agencies are not equipped nor trained for surf rescue. Several agencies use inappropriate equipment and tactics. Ice rescue suits should never be used for surf rescue. (according to the manufacturers recommendations) yet many police and fire agencies use them exclusively. Swimmers should NEVER be tethered unless equipped with a quick release mechanism that the swimmer can engage. If police/fire agencies are going to carry out surf rescue operations they must be trained to a surf lifesaving standard.

Citizen response: We believe that the beach-going public can be trained to quickly and safely respond to aquatic emergencies, even in the surf zone. Our Surf Rescue class has allowed dozens of ordinary people the opportunity to practice safe effective rescues from shore and in the water using both specialized rescue equipment and common ordinary objects found at the beach. Remember, rip currents, channel currents and big waves do not pull you under. If you have a flotation device and the ability to control your panic your likelihood of drowning is greatly diminished. Obviously we would never recommend anyone attempt a rescue unless they know that they have the equipment and the ability to do it safely. As stated before, we believe surfers, windsurfers, stand-up paddlesurfers and other watermen (and waterwomen) are an asset in the water. They are comfortable in the waves, they have thermal protection and they have a flotation device.
Imagine if the majority of our beach-goers knew about rip currents and knew how to respond to a person in distress. Imagine all of our beaches with rescue equipment readily available and professional rescuers, trained and equipped to assist. If we can keep victims floating for the critical 5-10 minutes it takes professional rescuers to arrive we can save nearly all the people we currently lose.

Next steps: Where do we go from here? We must collaborate and work together. There will be a Rip Current Conference sponsored by the NWS and the respective State Sea Grant programs. I’ve been to several of these conferences and believe they should be expanded to include sessions aimed at scientists, city officials, public safety officers, public educators and the media. We would love to help plan this event. Ideally a unified coordinated effort across the Great Lakes region will have the greatest impact. We hope to be a catalyst and partner in addressing the drowning problem on the Great Lakes. We hope you will join us.


Bob Pratt

Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project



Bob Pratt began his lifesaving career as a pool lifeguard and progressed to beach & surf lifeguard, paramedic and firefighter. He retired as fire marshal after 25 years with the East Lansing Fire Department. He has been a Lifeguard Instructor, Paramedic Instructor and served on the Health & Safety Committee for the Red Cross over 20 years. In 2007, Pratt founded the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. He was the 2011 N.D.P.A. “Lifesaver of the Year”, was the 2012 recipient of the “Service to the Great Lakes” award by the Dairyland Surf Festival. He has presented to a wide range of audiences on both a local and national level, including the NDPA National Symposium, and the International Rip Current Symposium.





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