MICHIGAN CITY — “Ten people per day in the United States drown. Drowning is a huge, huge problem.”

That was the sobering message Barker Middle School students received at the beach this week via Bob Pratt, the executive director of education for the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project (www.GLSPR.org).

The Lake Michigan Water Safety Presentations were a collaboration between the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project (www.GLSPR.org), the city of Michigan City, the Michigan City Fire Department and the Michigan City Parks and Recreation Department lifeguards.

“Water safety is extremely important in our area,” said Amy Hamann, curriculum coach at Barker Middle School. “Students do not realize the dangers of Lake Michigan. Our school has had two tragedies last summer. It's time to infuse pier and water safety into our curriculum each year and turn the tragedies into something positive and meaningful that will save lives.”

This wasn’t the first time that the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project representatives have talked to Barker Middle School students; Pratt and Benjamin visited Barker students in the classrooms in September. Then, back in March, the two performed 19 Great Lakes Water Safety School Presentations in nine MCAS schools. In-class presentations will be held at Krueger Middle School next week with hopes for the hands-on beach presentations next year, Hamann said.

“Unfortunately we know that the big picture of drowning continues to be a neglected public health issue and we know that it needs to be part of the school curriculum and addressed year round,” said Dave Benjamin, GLSRP executive director. 

The GLSRP is currently tracking 15 Great Lakes drownings in 2017. It tracked 99 Great Lakes drownings in 2016; 46 of those were in Lake Michigan and six more drowning accidents in this lake were last listed in critical condition. This is an 84 percent increase in the 25 drownings in 2015. The GLSRP has tracked more than 551 Great Lakes drownings since 2010.

The students were split into rotating groups to visit three stations. One was manned by the Michigan City Fire Department and covered such topics as the response times for the fire department and coast guard, response vehicles, the new throw rings on the pier and pier safety.

“The Michigan City Fire Department is always concerned about the safety of our personnel and the safety of the public,” said Fire Chief Randy Novak. “Drownings are 100 percent preventable, and we are committed to preventing all drownings in Michigan City and adjacent communities.”

Lifeguards from the Michigan City Parks and Recreation Department spoke to the students in another area about basic safety protocols at the lake, the swim areas and the dangers of swimming in bad conditions, how to become a lifeguard and the equipment used.

At the last station, Bob Pratt, the executive director of education for GLSPR, gave the students more information about drowning and how to prevent it.

“If you can remember one word today, remember ‘flotation,’” he said.

He explained the importance of always keeping a flotation device between yourself and the victim, remembering that “a drowning victim will grab anything that is near.”

“Throw them a football. Serve them a volleyball. Kick them a soccer ball,” he instructed.

Just as students have been instructed to “Stop, drop and roll,” in the case of a fire, he reminded the middle-schoolers to “Flip, float and follow.”

He explained how swimmers who flip over onto their backs can better take breaths as needed. Floating is not only calming but also conserves energy. The “Follow” commands means that a swimmer shouldn’t fight against the current, but instead follow a safe strategy of swimming parallel to shore and then swimming to shore in the case of a rip current, and swimming directly to shore in an offshore current.

He talked about how “most people that drown never intended to get in the water in the first place.” He likened having a life jacket only nearby, but not on, to trying to put a seat belt on in the middle of a car accident.

“We’re not trying to scare you from coming to the lake. I love the lake,” Pratt stressed while continuing to educate the kids on the differences of swimming in Lake Michigan compared to the ocean.

He explained that the waves in the Great Lakes are generally wind-generated and closer together, meaning that swimmers don’t receive as much time to recover and catch their breath. Because it’s denser, it’s also actually easier to swim in salt water rather than fresh water, he pointed out.

Pratt relayed to the students how 80 percent of all drowning victims are males.

“Guys believe we are bigger and stronger than we are,” he said. “They overestimate their swimming ability and want to impress other guys and girls, and sometimes they are bullied into something they don’t want to do.”

Arcelor Mittal has been instrumental in funding the presentations and the life rings that were installed last November along the west side of the east pier, near Millennium Plaza and the south side of the Franklin Street bridge and along the Trail Creek channel. Barker students had a chance to practice throwing out these life rings onto the sand this week.

After eighth-grader Zachary Parker had a turn, he shared what he gleaned from the field trip: “I learned about flotation and about rip currents – how you wait and don’t struggle. You wait for it to pull you out and you swim parallel.”

Gwen Sardon, another eighth grader, said she learned “more about lifeguards and how to become a lifeguard and the safety equipment they have.”

On Monday, two Arcelor Mittal Burns Harbor representatives were on site observing the beach presentations: Larry Fabino, manager of continuous improvement, and John D Mengel, vice president/general manager.

Mengel commented on the importance of the water safety presentations to students.

“At the end of the day, they are learning how to respond. Not only are people learning how to respond, but in the long run, it will lessen the need for responses.”

In reference to drownings at Lake Michigan, Fabino spoke of the importance of “how we as community can prevent this.” He talked about the need to educate children and adults and how LED electronic signs with messages about lake conditions are in the works at Washington Park.

Larry Butcher, director of La Porte County Emergency Management, also stopped by to see the presentations. He mentioned how himself, along with Michigan City Fire Marshal Kyle Kazmierczak and Arcelor Mittal have been working together on the next phase of drowning prevention: 911 call boxes and a 24/7 surveillance system with a live web cam that feeds to the Michigan City Police Department, La Porte County Emergency Management and the 911 call center.

“Every inch of the beach will be covered. They will be able to see exactly where someone (who is drowning) goes in. People can see anything that is going on at the beach,” he said.

He stated that the funding is nearly complete for the approximately $60,000 asset.

“Anyone that wants to donate, jump in there,” he said.

“Water safety and drowning survival is not common sense. It’s a silent epidemic that gets very little proactive funding or attention. We believe that water safety and drowning survival is not rocket science,” Benjamin added. “It is simple bullet pointed information that is not being efficiently or effectively delivered.”

“Learning it and applying it are why we are here today,” Pratt told the students.

“It’s a great collaboration,” he said about the water safety presentations. “The kids have been very attentive. We are making inroads.”

About future refresher-type courses, he replied, “We will come back as often as you will let us come back.”

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