South Haven’s beach safety flag program at North and South beaches normally ends Sept. 15.
This year, however, the flags that warn swimmers of dangerous swimming conditions on Lake Michigan remained up through the final weekend of September.
The nearly two-week extension of the program was part of an ongoing effort by South Haven Area Emergency Services and the city of South Haven to educate beachgoers about the hazards of swimming when there are high waves and rip currents.
“Our flag program manager Dawn Hinz did an awesome job, and I can’t give enough praise to our flag attendants,” said SHAES Administrator and Fire Chief Brandon Hinz. “They really stepped it up this year and agreed to put in another couple weeks to extend the program an additional 12 days.”
The flag-warning system consists of different colored flags that are changed throughout the day depending on weather conditions. Green means swimming conditions are mild, yellow stands for caution, while red means swimmers need to stay out of the water.
The flags are just one component of SHAES’ water safety program that was expanded this summer following three Lake Michigan drownings that occurred near South Haven beaches in 2020 – a year in which water levels reached an all-time high.
To gear up for the swimming season, SHAES provided daily text alerts to notify beachgoers of beach flag alerts.
Beach safety protocol was also promoted by placemats at local restaurants, social media websites, and on safety flyers distributed by Bronson South Haven’s Safe Kid’s Coalition in coordination with the South Haven Visitors Bureau. The city’s “Good Neighbor Guide,” distributed to visitors at short-term rentals, also included water safety information.
South Haven Area Emergency Services increased training, added equipment for its water-rescue members, and stepped up beach patrols – along with South Haven Police Department officers.
“We did two to three water-rescue trainings and outfitted all of our full-time members with fitted life vests, thanks to generous donations from our community,” Hinz said. “We continue training throughout the year with cold water and ice rescues as well.”
Hinz also gave a shout-out to local and regional news outlets that helped pass along warnings about unsafe water conditions on Lake Michigan.
“The media has done a great job warning, informing on red flag days,” he said. “Local meteorologists were very firm in their messages to stay out of the water on the red flag days.”
City officials said these efforts to improve safety may have paid off.
Unlike other lakeshore communities to the north and south of South Haven, there were no drownings or water rescues this summer off city beaches.
“We firmly believe increased patrols on the beaches, face-to-face interaction and education, and multiple modes of informing the public have helped immensely,” Hinz said. “We set out this spring to manage this program intensively, educate and inform. I truly believe it made a difference.”
Like many lakefront communities up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline, South Haven does not offer a lifeguard program at its beaches.
A water safety committee that the city council established earlier this year, concluded that a life guard program could prove to be cost-prohibitive and that increased educational efforts would be the best way to reduce drowning incidents.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources also began to examine ways to improve water safety at state park beaches. Earlier this month, the DNR announced plans to implement rules regulating people from entering Lake Michigan at state park beaches during dangerous water conditions. The rules also include fining people who are caught in the water on red flag days.
The rules only affect beaches at state parks, but Hinz said he would favor similar rules at South Haven’s city beaches.
“I support anything that will help us keep residents, visitors and responders safe on red flag days,” he said. “Multiple times we’ve seen people on the piers, in the high waves, and in the rip currents on red flag days. Our program doesn’t have enough teeth to do that (stop swimmers from entering the water on red flag days), maybe this will help.”