Lakeshore communities look to education to prevent drownings

Summertime is beach time in West Michigan.

“Lake Michigan is an awesome, awesome asset, but it’s also a dangerous asset.” Park Township Manager and member of the Holland State Park Water Safety Consortium Howard Fink says.

Park Township is among a number of Lakeshore communities working to mitigate the natural dangers posed by their proximity to the water. Last year, 41 people drowned in Lake Michigan, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

The Holland State Park Water Safety Consortium, a group of government leaders that includes sheriff’s office, fire department, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Coast Guard representatives, is working to create solutions to prevent accidents in the water. 

Other efforts are also underway. The Park Township Fire Department has created a marine division and added Jet Skis with the help of a public safety millage. 

Courtesy Charles ElwooidThe water near the piers is especially dangerous, officials say.

Intergovernmental collaboration

“A number of years ago, there were a significant number of near drownings and drownings on Lake Michigan,” Fink says. “At the time, I asked the Park Township Board of Trustees to allow me to do some intergovernmental collaboration.”

The Holland State Park Water Safety Consortium was the result.

Already, the consortium has added a safety gate to the pier at Holland State Park, new safety messaging displays, and changed how that information is presented.

“What we realized was what we really needed to do was tackle the education component,” Fink says.

The consortium is partnering with newly formed nonprofit West Michigan Water Safety Alliance to reduce the number of drownings and further improve water safety in the Holland area.

Educating beachgoers

Following a training earlier this month, volunteers will be stationed at Holland State Park to educate beachgoers on the dangers of the different types of water currents, the flag warning system, and best practices to help keep everyone safe while enjoying the beauty and recreation of Lake Michigan. 

These aren't emergency first responders. They are educators and extra eyes on the water to call 911 in case of an emergency.

“Every year too many tragedies happen along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Sadly, the Holland area is no exception,” a news release from the group states.

The West Michigan Water Safety Alliance is an offshoot of a nonprofit formed by Heather Welsh-Johnson, the South Haven Ambassadors Program and Education (SHAPE). In 2022, Welsh-Johnson witnessed the drowning of a 7-year-old boy and the man who tried to save him. That same year, she started SHAPE and started walking the beach, armed with information.

“I’m a local here. I am tired of hearing the sirens. I am tired of watching the rescues,” Welsh-Johnson says.

SHAPE volunteers walk the beach, handing out brochures with water safety information such as structural and rip currents, what color swimsuit is safest (bright and contrasting colors, not light blue, gray, or green), exit strategy for getting out of the water in an emergency, and the meaning of the flag color system.

“Getting information into the right hands can definitely save a life,” Welsh-Johnson says.

Water watchers

They also help beachgoers to become “water watchers.” A water watcher must be a responsible adult, stay within arms reach of their child, use a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket for anyone unable to swim, and agree to be responsible for everyone in their party. Every water watcher is given a rubber bracelet or water watcher card, designating them as the designated water watcher. If they need a break or to walk away at any time, they hand off the card or bracelet to another responsible adult.

Earlier this year, Welsh-Johnson was awarded the National Drowning Prevention Alliance Community Lifesafer of the Year Award for her efforts.

A chapter of the nonprofit is also starting in St. Joseph, and Welsh-Johnson is in talks with other communities along the Lakeshore about water safety at their beaches.

Changing the culture

Park Township contracted with SHAPE to create the West Michigan Water Safety Alliance and increase water safety at Holland State Park.

“We expect to be out on the beach very shortly doing outreach and education,” Fink says. “The most effective prevention we can do is education.”

Children know what to do if they are caught in a house fire. The techniques are drilled into them. However, what if they get caught in a rip current? The West Michigan Water Safety Alliance has started working with area schools to make lake safety is just as second nature as fire safety.

“What we’re trying to do is to change the culture of our community,” Fink says. “Do the parents know this is not a little inland lake this is not a pool? This is different. These are very strong currents that if you get caught in one an Olympic swimmer couldn’t swim against it.”

CourtesyThe Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project recommends the flip, float, follow technique to escape a rip current.

The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project advocates for the “Flip, Float, Follow” technique to survive a rip current. (Flip onto your back, Float with your head above water, Follow the current to figure out which way it is going and, if able, swim perpendicular to the current.)

Sometimes, the simplest solution proves effective. At Muskegon beaches, officials have seen a decrease in drownings with the addition of a number system — similar to what might be found in a large parking lot — so anyone calling emergency services knows immediately what section of the beach they are in.

“Not everybody is familiar with the area where they’re at,”  Muskegon City Parks Supervisor Matt Schwemin says.

Road signs also show first responders where to go, cutting down on triage time tremendously, Schwemin says.

The beaches’ Swim Smart warning system is tied directly to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather information, making it more accurate.

“Our state is surrounded by water. We need to be the leader in water safety,” Welsh-Johnson says.

For details about the West Michigan Water Safety Alliance, email or call 616-287-2533.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Andrea Goodell.