Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Great Lakes Drowning Epidemic


Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project
Dave Benjamin, Executive Director of Public Relations, 708-903-0166
Bob Pratt, Executive Director of Education, 517-643-2553

Drowning Epidemic
Public education in concert with safety measures a must

Since 2010 more than 262 people have drowned in the Great Lakes.  Eight of these fatal drownings recently occurred over this year’s Labor Day weekend

Karl W. Schmidt, 60, a grandfather, was one of those drownings.  He was enjoying Lake Michigan with his family over the holiday weekend when tragedy struck his 9-year-old grandson who was pulled from shore.  Schmidt was able to pass the boy to nearby surfers who took him to shore.  Sadly in the confusion Schmidt had used his last ounce of energy to save the boy and went under.

Bystanders began a frantic search and found his body 200 yards from shore where surfer, Burton Hathaway, paddled him in.  Schmidt’s children, grandchildren, and hundreds of holiday beach goers watched in desperation as bystanders performed CPR until officers and first responders arrived.  

(Rescue workers perform lifesaving efforts to Karl Schmidt)

Family and beach goers continued to watch Schmidt, unresponsive to the chest compressions, as he was carried from the water’s edge to a waiting ambulance.

The same day, Tyler Buczek, 15, an 8th grade valedictorian and incoming freshman quarterback disappeared in the waves at a Port Washington, WI beach as his closest friends watched.  

One of his friends was quoted as saying, “We're all freshmen.  It’s supposed to be we're all happy, we're in high school.  But I don't think that's going to be how it is this year.”   

Those who know Tyler recalled a boy with a big future.  He was supposed to start his first day of high school, but instead songs, prayers and tears flowed as nearly 1,000 people gathered for his beachside vigil to support the teenager's family.

Now multiply these tragic stories by 262 and counting and know that these drowning numbers will continue to rise unless a uniform water safety education program is in place.  

Two men and a mission
Bob Pratt and Dave Benjamin have worked fulltime for more than two years without pay in an effort to save lives through their nonprofit organization, the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project (GLSRP). 

Since 2010 they have been tracking drowning statistics and, in the summer of 2011 and 2012, they performed 17 “Water Safety Surf Rescue” classes on the beaches and in the waters of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.  People who attended the classes consisted of the general public, surfers, lifeguards, Department of Natural Resource (DNR) officers, police officers, fire fighters, paramedics, water rescue team members, dive team members, and the U.S. Coast Guard. 

The GLSRP intends to expand its classes to all five Great Lakes, create a Water Safety Rip Current Survival national curriculum, in order to reduce these drownings.

Pratt recently retired after 25 years of service as paramedic, fire fighter, and fire marshal for the city of East Lansing, MI to take the helm of the GLSRP full-time.  He is also a certified lifeguard, CPR, and first aid instructor and has served as the lead trainer for the fire department’s water and ice rescue training as well as several police and fire agencies in Michigan including Lansing Community College’s Police Academy.  

Pratt became an advocate for Great Lakes water safety when he was going to teach his son to surf September 3, 2003.  On that day at the beach, U.S. Coast Guard helicopters and boats were in the water searching for Andy Fox, who got caught in a rip current at Grand Haven State Park. 

“We spent some time on the beach just reflecting and were deeply affected by the sight,” said Pratt.  “I was appalled to learn how common drownings were on the Great Lakes. Very few beaches have lifeguards, and bystanders are often the only hope a drowning victim has.”

Fox's death sparked Pratt’s interest in rip currents and he later worked with Fox's mom on several projects including the “Great Lakes Beach and Pier Safety Task Force” and the “Beach Safety Challenge”.

Benjamin has swum in Lake Michigan for 42 years and started surfing the Lake in 2009.  While surfing in 2010 he survived a nonfatal drowning accident which prompted his dedication to this cause.

“After swimming in the lake my whole life, I was pretty comfortable in the water,” said Benjamin, executive director of the GLSRP.  “But all it took was one moment of panic for all experience and rational thought to go out the window.”

According to Benjamin when he was drowning, he remembered an article titled, “Drowning doesn’t look like drowning” by Mario Vittone and it saved his life. 

“I was doing all the signs [of drowning] and when I stopped doing the signs I was able to eventually float to safety.”

This summer Benjamin participated in an unsuccessful water rescue and witnessed several bodies pulled from the water. 

“Going to the beach is supposed to be about family fun, recreation, love and happiness.  Not about tragedy, despair, and hopelessness,” Benjamin concluded.

The GLSRP is working with the Michigan Sea Grant’s “Flip, Float, and Follow” rip current survival strategy, to develop a national curriculum similar to the Fire Prevention Services’ “Stop, Drop and Roll” program.

“Ask anyone anywhere in the United States and they probably know ‘Stop, Drop and Roll,’” Benjamin aptly noted, hoping “Flip, Float, Follow” can catch on as well.”

The GLSRP has been promoting the Michigan Sea Grant’s “Flip, Float, and Follow” rip current survival strategy through its “Water Safety Surf Rescue” classes this summer and it has received over 30 media mentions.

With some funding, the GLSRP is ready to launch a regional and then national water safety curriculum to teach the public how to:
·         Recognize the dangers and hazards of the Great Lakes surf environment keeping personal safety as THE primary responsibility
·         Implement Hands-on Adult Supervision –
·         Designate Water Watchers (The Water Watcher Card)
·         Recognize the “Signs of Drowning” – How to identify a person in trouble from within a crowd (The Hollywood version of drowning vs. the actual version of drowning)
·         Understand rip currents; i.e. how, where, and why rip currents occur;
·         Know the Dangerous Currents
·         Know the dangers of Offshore Winds
·         Use a flotation device or surfboard to rescue a person in distress or in a rip current
·         React when encountering swimmers who have suffered an injury or unconscious
·         Enroll in lifesaving, first aid and CPR training from accredited agencies.
·         Use the Michigan Sea Grants “Flip, Float, and Follow” rip current survival strategy

The Price of Apathy
If no uniform public water safety curriculum is funded, the Great Lakes drowning epidemic will definitely continue to rise, especially as the beaches receive national recognition and multimillion dollar restoration projects are under way.  More attractive beaches result in more bathers and, without effective intervention, more drownings.

Although the GLSRP is a young organization, it has made some huge accomplishments in less than two years and is ready to handle the challenge of delivering this national water safety curriculum.

Indiana State Senator Jim Arnold is drafting legislation that, if passed, will make it illegal to swim in Lake Michigan when rip current warnings are issued.

Arnold was quotes as saying, “The whole purpose of this is to save lives and protect people who have shortcomings (with understanding how dangerous these conditions are).  This law provides a way to enforce this. This is a public safety issue.”

The bill would exempt those who want to surf Lake Michigan provided they wore the proper safety gear.

According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, on average, fifty percent of all Great Lakes drownings occur in Lake Michigan and fifty percent of Lake Michigan drownings occur on the south end of the Lake from Chicagoland to the Indiana/Michigan border.  Approximately one-third of all Great Lakes drownings are rip current related.

“We are thankful that there is interest in water safety, but drowning is a complex problem and we need to make sure the lawmakers realize that this will not keep every swimmer out of the water nor prevent all drownings,” said Bob Pratt executive director of education of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. 

“Rip currents are only a piece of the drowning puzzle on the Lake.  Without addressing all of the factors that lead to drowning, we are not addressing the problem; factors such as the lack of lifeguards at most beaches, the lack of adult supervision, other dangerous currents, offshore winds, Seiches, or localized winds that arise before the National Weather Service can issue a warning.”

“This law may reduce a few drownings but we really need a comprehensive plan to address all the factors and not leave enforcement and interpretation to local jurisdictions.”

Pratt recently returned from the International Rip Current Symposium in Sydney, Australia where he presented the work of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project and the Great Lakes drowning epidemic.  In March Pratt will be presenting a Stand-Up Paddleboard curriculum at the National Drowning Prevention Alliance’s 12th Annual Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Amidst the drowning fatalities and possible swim ban, in Northwest Indiana there are two beach restoration projects totaling $70 million, which will bring even more people to the lakefront.

In Gary the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority (RDA) provided a $28 million grant for the Marquette Park Lakefront East Project.  “It will create an economic boom nearby and bring people to this important piece of shoreline,” said RDA Executive Director Bill Hanna.  In Whiting the focus of the $42 million redevelopment project is to transform the Whiting Lakefront Park into a destination point for all to enjoy.

“With all of this money for restoration projects designed to bring more people to the beaches, you have to ask the question, ‘How much money or funding is allocated for water safety drowning prevention programs,’” Benjamin said.

“These drowning numbers do not happen on the east coast and west coast combined, so what are they doing on the coasts that are not being done on the Great Lakes?”


Become a member of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.  The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, Inc. (GLSRP) is about saving lives.  It is a nonprofit corporation that is a Chapter of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA) that tracks drowning statistics, teaches “Water Safety Surf Rescue” classes, and leads the “Third Coast Ocean Force” rip current awareness campaign on the Great Lakes.

It presented at the 2nd International Rip Current Symposium Nov. 1st, 2012 in Sydney, Australia; the 2012 winner of the “Outstanding Service to the Great Lakes Community” award presented by the Dairyland Surf Classic; the 2011 “Lifesaver of the Year” award winner; and a presenter at the NDPA’s 11th Annual Symposium in San Diego, March 9, 2012.

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