Wednesday June 20, 2012

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Here is a response to a viewer who e-mailed SurfGrandHaven who inquired about using the State Park flag system: Flag color is a difficult way to gage water safety. There are several problems with using this system. 1. Changing conditions can occur faster than the ability to change flag color. 2. The flag color is subjective and qualitative, compared to objective and quantitative. 3. Flag placement is important. 4. Swimming area is important. SurfGrandHaven cares deeply for the safety of swimmers in the Grand Haven area. As a veteran surfer of over 45 years, I have been involved in many water rescues with my surfboard in the State Park where the flag system operates. The main problem is that the general public does not understand the dangers of swimming in the “swimming area” of the state park. Couple that with the relative inexperience of the state park personnel who hire only seasonal youths to work the state park, that have no water safety training. It is a wonder that we don’t have more injuries and loss of life at the state park. I view swimming at the state park is comparable to walking on the shoulder of a busy highway. The margin of error is very slim, and sooner or later accidents will happen. There is no reason to put people in danger. We are working with the City of Grand Haven Public Safety on a joint project, called Water Rescue which is designed for surfers to aid distressed swimmers, as first responders. I would like to take it a step further and put a program in place to reduce the number of incidents in the first place. This spring I asked the Supervisor of the State Park to make changes to their past procedures. The initial problem is that the swimming area is poorly designed. The swim buoys are too close to the pier. The flags are posted a long way from the water. The state park staff are not trained in water safety. On Monday, June 18th, I went to the main gate of the state park and asked what the water temperature was for the day. The young man at the gate said it was 66 degrees, and he said that they may change the flag color in an hour or so. I asked if I could swim anywhere in the swim area, even next to the pier? He said sure, “you can even walk out on the pier and jump in”, even though the red flag is flying. We are at the beginning of the "rip current season" now that the water temperature has reached 70 degrees. From now until Labor Day, the risks to swimmers is largely dependent on marine conditions. Here at SurfGrandHaven, we would rather warn of the dangers of swimming at the state park, instead of picking times to take a chance of swimming near the pier.

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Bob Pratt on 28/06/2012 14:49:59
Mr. Beaton,
Thank you for your years of dedication to water safety in the Grand Haven area. Your analogy to a highway is accurate and parents should be as close to their children as they would on a highway. This week we have had two fatal drownings due to rip currents on the Great Lakes. This year there have been 35 fatal drownings from all causes, most of them in Lake Michigan. Last year there were 87 fatal Great Lakes drownings and 44 of them were on Lake Michigan.
I firmly believe the reason there have not been more fatal drownings in Grand Haven is the culture of ownership the city and residents have cultivated. The Swim for Life foundation has identified three areas that must be addressed in order to reduce drownings: SAFER KIDS, SAFER WATER, and SAFER RESPONSE. In Grand Haven you have programs working in all of these areas.
Safer Kids: The Beach Safety Challenge held every year teaches everyone to “Respect the Power” of Lake Michigan. The Video “Unsalted” produced by Vince Deur highlights water safety. Derek Warner’s Outdoor Ed and lifeguard classes at the High School and the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project provides rescue training to students, surfers and other watermen (persons).
Safer Water: The pier in Grand Haven is a wonderful combination of old school rescue equipment combined with state of the art technology. Throw rings have been used for centuries, but automatic signaling devices and your camera that pans and zooms to the area of an emergency is simply brilliant! The memorials at the base of the pier serve as a constant reminder of those who have lost their lives in these waters.
Safer Response: The Grand Haven Public Safety Department has undertaken a comprehensive water safety program. Your Water Rescue program and the cooperation with professional rescuers will provide a vital link in the survival of drowning victims. The long history of surfers making rescues and educating beachgoers is invaluable both as a rescue and prevention tool.
Unfortunately it appears that the State Parks staff fails to realize what common knowledge among residents, that is: the Lake is dangerous and MUST be respected. Sadly, when the Coast Guard helicopter and rescue boats are conducting yet another body recovery they may start to understand, of course then it’s too late.
Thanks for all you have done and all you continue to do,

Bob Pratt
Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project
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Bill Plouff on 24/06/2012 15:00:22
Great article. Very informative. Best of luck getting the changes you identified.
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