SH drowning search file photo

First responders from South Haven Area Emergency Services and South Haven Police Department form a human chain Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020 in an attempt to locate an 18-year-old man from Jackson who had become caught up in the waves of Lake Michigan off of South Beach. The Van Buren County Sheriff’s Department Marine boat can also be seen assisting in the search.

After meeting for nearly six months, the South Haven Beach Safety Committee has put together a number of recommendations to make city-owned beaches safer for swimmers.

However, a lifeguard program is not on the list.

The ad hoc committee voted 5-2 last week not to forward the suggestion that the city council create a lifeguard program.

“Since residents would have to pay for lifeguards, the city residents should vote on it,” said Tim Stegeman, chair of the committee.

Committee member Randy VanWynen echoed Stegeman’s sentiments.

“I think there’s a feeling everybody’s against lifeguards,” VanWynen said. “I don’t think that’s the case. If we get to the point of having lifeguards, it should be put to a vote of the people so it’s properly funded. If we do have a program, we want it properly funded.”

Committee member Kameron Daugherty, who, along with member Sean Russell, voted in favor of having the city create a lifeguard program, was disappointed in the committee’s decision not to do so.

“I have concerns we’re putting forth a recommendation that doesn’t do enough,” she said. “I worry that we haven’t done right enough by them (families of drowning victims). I’m concerned we’ve closed the door on further discussion on lifeguards. I think our recommendation would be a whole lot more effective with trained and certified lifeguards.”

As part of the committee’s duties to recommend beach safety improvements to the city council for its approval, Russell – who at one time helped supervise the city’s lifeguard program before it was disbanded in 2001 – put together a cost analysis for a lifeguard program.

Russell determined the program with trained and certified employees would cost $197,000 in its first year of operation and about $167,000 each year afterward.

The program for North and South beaches would include 13 full-time lifeguards, two part-time lifeguards, two head guards and a supervisor. The budget would also include the purchase of rescue equipment, lifeguard towers, clothing, a first aid kit and flags.

Other options

Although the Beach Safety Committee is not recommending a lifeguard program to improve safety at the city’s two main beaches, it did forward other suggestions for the council to consider. They include:

Improved multi-paneled signage at the piers and beaches, educating swimmers about water conditions that could lead to drownings.

Text warning system that would be sent to mobile phones when “red flag” warnings are issued advising people not to swim in the lake due to weather conditions.

Water safety ordinance in which anyone who enters the lake during red flag conditions would face consequences.

Billboard signage to educate visitors about dangerous water conditions on Lake Michigan.

Establishing a QR code that people can use before coming to the beach to find out whether it is safe to swim in Lake Michigan that day.

Buying a drone to assist first responders in locating and helping.

A memorial to honor the lives of drowning victims.

Audio warning system to alert swimmers about dangerous water conditions in Lake Michigan.

Gates for piers that would be closed depending on water conditions.

Some of the recommendations are already in the process of being implemented through South Haven Area Emergency Services. Earlier this month, SHAES announced it had received a grant from Albemarle Corp. Foundation to buy the drone, and set up the text messaging system and QR code.

Daugherty, though, doesn’t think the recommendations do enough to deter drownings.

“In all honesty, I wasn’t surprised by the vote but it stings nonetheless,” she said. “That said, I’m not done. We owe too much to the families of the victims and to our visitors. We need to ensure we have a gold standard beach and pier safety program that includes active participation in prevention – versus passive preventative measures – along with those new tools that will aid in rescue and recovery response.”

Daugherty is seeking a seat on the city council this year, and will be on the ballot for Ward 2 in the August primary along with Wendi Onuki and Bob Overheul.

“I’m hoping my bid for a seat on city council this year will be successful and then I will be able to continue the focus on beach and pier safety from the inside, right along with other key community priorities,” Daugherty said.