RACINE COUNTY – Racine County officials, with a strong focus on water safety, will deploy high-tech devices and a big public information push to help prevent drownings and accidents on Lake Michigan.
About $150,000 will be spent on sophisticated equipment – including drones, remote-control life rafts and satellite-linked signage – plus training and coordination for lifeguards and rescue personnel. It’s all intended to prevent a repeat of a deadly 2021 summer when drowning incidents at Zoo Beach and North Beach claimed five lives.
“This is a big investment. As we head into the summer months, we understand the urgency to keep our residents and visitors safe,” said Andrew Goetz, Racine County’s communications and media relations director, speaking of water safety. “We’re taking a multi-pronged approach.”
The initial step, starting Memorial Day weekend, is a public information blitz to remind people about staying safe around water. Fliers and printed materials on water safety, currently in production, will be distributed throughout the community at YMCA locations, community centers, libraries, etc. A 17-minute video, produced by the Racine Unified School District, the City of Racine and the Racine County Sheriff’s Office, is planned to debut online in the near future.
Additional steps in the water safety initiative involve purchasing and installing equipment and the training of lifeguards and first responders.
Prominent signage – approximately 4 x 8-feet – will warn people to stay out of the lake near the North Pier breakwater. That location is particularly prone to dangerous rip currents. Other signage related to rip currents and general water safety will continue to be posted along North Beach and Zoo Beach.
Officials are also looking into installing a “no swimming buoy line” in the lake waters adjacent to the North Pier breakwater. That will require coordination with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Technology to supplement lifeguards
Technology will help supplement the beaches’ lifeguards (employed by the City of Racine Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services), who will be at work throughout the summer months. As outlined by Racine County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Brad Friend, the technology includes:
- Electronic warning signs at the beaches linked to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio satellites. The signs will display green, yellow or red signals indicating water safety conditions. “This is similar to the flag system used at a lot of ocean beaches, but won’t require someone to physically change the flags. It will update automatically,” Friend said.
- Inflatable rescue sticks that can be dropped from an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or drone, to aid a person in distress. Friend said the rescue device was successfully used in a recent training exercise. The county currently has two standard drones and is looking into purchasing a third that is specially designed for water use.
- EMILY (Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard), an automated floating rescue device. “It’s basically like a big, motorized life raft,” Friend said. “It can get out to someone a lot quicker than we can with a boat.” Plans call for the purchase of four EMILY devices – two would be stationed at the beach area, one on the Sheriff’s Office emergency response boat (docked at ReefPoint Marina) and one with the Sheriff’s Office Dive Response vehicle (for deployment anywhere in the county).
In addition, the county’s water safety response initiative includes adding an overboard rescue recovery crane to the emergency response boat, search and rescue sonar for the boat and dive team and water-activated GPS strobes for the dive.
The equipment is planned to be purchased and ready for use this summer.
To see an EMILY in action, visit: https://www.emilyrobot.com/.
An investment in water safety
County Executive Jonathan Delagrave announced the planned safety investment in his 2022 State of the County address on May 10. More details were shared in a presentation to the Racine County Board on Tuesday. The funding comes from the county’s general budget.
“We are very focused on keeping people safe. The technology exists, so we’re willing to make the investment,” said Goetz.
“I’m real excited to have this technology and to work with the lifeguards and our responders to make sure everyone is well trained,” said Friend. “A lot of things are happening at once, but the big piece is informing the public about safety.”