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Beach upgrades aimed at saving lives

Alexander Sinn • May 25, 2019 at 9:00 AM

The beach at Grand Haven State Park was calm, cool and still Friday afternoon when officials gathered to remember a tragedy that occurred last August, and to announce a host of new equipment to help keep beachgoers safe this summer.

The Grand Haven Rotary Club recently donated $7,500 to the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety for new equipment, some of which visitors to the beach will notice immediately.

As you enter the park, tune your car radio to 1700 AM to hear up-to-date flag signals for weather conditions.

Red signs with zone numbers have been positioned every 300 feet along the beach, so beachgoers can tell law enforcement where they are located in the event of an emergency. Mounted on those sign posts are life-saving rings and information about the danger of rip currents.

To the south of the state park, a new flag pole at the adjacent City Beach will provide flag warnings consistent with the state park.

The upgrades are a response to two fatal drownings that occurred Aug. 5, 2018. Beachgoers formed human chains and fanned out in the shallow waves in search of the victims. 

Grand Haven Public Safety Director Jeff Hawke said officers have previously had difficulty knowing where to respond to drowning calls. Conditions are often less than ideal during rescue events, he noted. 

“A lot of time, it’s folks visiting from out of town, so they’re not familiar with the beach,” Hawke said. “They’re not familiar with the area, so trying to get our officers to the problem has always been a challenge.”

“Last seen” flags will be deployed by state park personnel to tag where a drowning victim went missing, Hawke said. Life rings that are returning to the south pier with the new catwalk have not been used often, he said, but have been effective when they are needed.

“The problem was finding the person,” the police chief said. “With this system, we're hoping to cut that down even more. When somebody goes under the water, we’ve got to get the mount in the first couple of minutes. That’s critical for a rescue and resuscitation.”

All local officers are trained rescue swimmers through the technician level, Hawke said. The Rotary funding also helped equip all public safety vehicles with rescue goggles. A grant from the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation in 2017 replaced all of the department’s water rescue suits, he added.

Hawke said the new equipment and strategies were determined by a joint effort among local law enforcement, Ottawa County Central Dispatch, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and other stakeholders. 

While the equipment will help with responses, DNR Unit Supervisor Gary Jones said the radio broadcasts and new signage are intended to prevent crises in the first place.

“While the beach emergency response is great, what we hope is that we don’t have to put it into use, and not lose sight or stress the emphasis on the education component,” he said.

Grand Haven Rotary Club President Dr. Dave Swain cut the ribbon at the beach on Friday, standing in front of the new Zone 6 sign near to the state park pavilion.

Mayor Geri McCaleb said the signage can also help with less serious efforts, such as locating friends and family on a crowded beach.

“I can only imagine what it’s like to have thousands of people on the beach and you get that call,” the mayor said. “I see this as just a great step forward in beach safety and security as we go into the future.”

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