City hears pitch to bring back lifeguards

Safety officials in towns up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline have become increasingly concerned about beachgoers swimming in Lake Michigan when red flag warnings have been issued.  In the photo, above, people are shown in Lake Michigan near South Beach on July 19, ignoring the red flag warnings. This photo was taken shortly before two swimmers had to be rescued after becoming exhausted fighting the waves. Due in part to high water levels, drownings this year in Lake Michigan have more than doubled over last year, according to Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

SOUTH HAVEN — Should South Haven add lifeguards once again to patrol its city beaches? Some people think so, and hope city leaders will consider doing so.

“Beach safety is a key concern of mine,” said Cam Daugherty. In the wake of the July 13 drowning of a 13-year-old boy visiting South Haven from Ann Arbor, Daugherty started an online petition asking people whether lifeguards should return to South Haven beaches.

The response was an overwhelming yes.

“I expected a few hundred (yes votes),” Daugherty said. “At this point the petition has reached 16,000.” Responders hail from not only Southwest Michigan, but throughout the United States and internationally.

Daugherty remembers lifeguards when she was a teenager whose family lived near South Haven’s North Beach.

“Because most of my friends were lifeguards I was able to witness the effectiveness of lifeguards in not only rescuing swimmers but preventing drownings,” Daugherty said.

Shawn Russell is a retired U.S. Air Force pilot. He was a lifeguard in South Haven as a teenager during the late 1980s.

“I had many rescues,” he said. “The bottom line, I know guards made a huge difference.”

Lifeguards had a variety of tasks to perform at South and North beaches in South Haven, according to Russell.

They monitored the water, monitored and changed the beach warning flags, positioned water buoys, searched for missing persons, saved people from drowning, kept people from jumping off the pier, watched for disorderly behavior and kept in contact with police and fire units.

“We were in constant direct contact with the sheriff’s marine patrol. We were the eyes and ears of the police department on the beaches,” he said.

Daugherty and Russell both attended Monday’s South Haven City Council meeting to present a program on the need for lifeguards and requested that council members form a committee to study the issue.

“We believe enough time has lapsed since the last review,” Daugherty said, feeling “new conclusions could be formed.”

South Haven, along with a number of lakeshore communities up and down the shoreline, disbanded lifeguard programs in the early 2000s. Several years ago, following several drownings, the city instituted a flag weather warning system at North and South beaches and installed signs warning people of the dangers of rip currents in Lake Michigan. South Haven Area Emergency Services and South Haven Police have also invested money to purchase life-saving equipment and provide training to first responders to improve their effectiveness in water rescues on Lake Michigan and in the Black River harbor.

“We take safety seriously at all levels,” Mayor Scott Smith said. “We’ve had the hottest July on record and the most drownings ever in Lake Michigan. We have higher lake water levels this year. There has been a hundred water rescues this summer, eight in Ludington alone. We closed our beach (following two water rescues on July 19) and still people were getting in the water. It’s a problem.”

Smith stopped short of telling Daugherty and Russell that the council will immediately form a committee. However, he said, “Dialogue is relevant. I think the council is interested in hearing more about what the community says.”