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Lake Michigan beach goes high-tech to curb drownings from rip tides

People standing in line in front of the beach
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and SwimSmart unveiled a new electronic flag system at Grand Haven State Park beach on Monday. (Courtesy)
  • Michigan’s most popular state park is launching a new electronic beach warning system that can automatically alert authorities of a drowning
  • The system is the latest effort to keep swimmers safe amid a spate of drowning deaths
  • But experts say they aren’t replacements for lifeguards and water safety education

Amid an ongoing struggle to keep swimmers safe in the tempestuous Great Lakes, Michigan’s busiest state park is replacing its old safety-flag system with an electronic version that automatically calls 911 in an emergency.

The new beach safety towers at Grand Haven State Park are the latest in a string of changes to state beaches as officials strive to reduce Lake Michigan’s high drowning rate. 

Nearly half of all Great Lakes drownings occur in Lake Michigan, a phenomenon drowning-prevention advocates attribute to the popularity of Lake Michigan’s beaches and the strength of its rip currents.


Beaches across the country have long used colored flags to alert swimmers to unsafe water conditions, with a green flag signaling safe swimming while yellow signals higher hazard, red signals unsafe conditions, and double red means water access is closed.

But it’s cumbersome and time consuming to swap out the flags, Grand Haven State Park Supervisor Andrew LundBorg said, costing precious minutes that could raise the risk of drowning. 

So on Monday, the park unveiled eight new towers equipped with colored lights that can be updated with the push of a button. The towers double as a public address system, allowing parks staff to announce beach closures instantaneously. 

And in an emergency, they automatically summon response crews to the scene. 

“It gives us a much broader voice to be able to communicate with people on the beach,” LundBorg said of the new system, which should be operational in the coming weeks.

Created by the Michigan-based company SwimSmart, the towers are a new response to a longstanding problem: Every year, the Great Lakes claim dozens of lives.


Last year, 85 people drowned in the Great Lakes, down from 108 in 2022, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. 

In response to the problem, the state parks system has pursued policy changes and messaging initiatives at the parks in addition to the technology upgrades announced this week.

In 2022, the parks system launched a policy to close beaches during hazardous weather, authorizing parks staff to ticket beachgoers who refuse to leave the water. Parks officials have also expanded the number of buoyed swim areas and loudspeakers while ramping up water safety outreach.

LundBorg said the flag towers will help ensure beach goers are aware of the risk, while increasing response time in the event of a drowning. If the system is successful in Grand Haven, he said, it could expand into other state parks. 

Each 15-foot-tall tower is equipped with a flotation ring that, when accessed to help someone in the water, triggers an automatic call to 911, while tripping an alarm in park offices and alerting park rangers to the location of the emergency.

Four additional blue towers along the sidewalk contain a video monitoring system and emergency phones that connect to 911 dispatchers. 

graphic showing the flip, float and follow method
If you’re struggling to stay afloat in the water, you should follow the “flip, float, following” method. (Courtesy)

Lifeguards still needed, but in short supply

SwimSmart founder Jacob Soter said the new towers are helpful safety tools. But he added that they’re not a replacement for other measures, such as lifeguards and swimming safety lessons. 

“It’s kind of like a fire alarm system, which can prevent some fires,” said Soter. “But at the end of the day, our alarm systems didn’t get rid of firefighters.”

Man on the beach. Next to him is a huge orange pole.
SwimSmart founder Jacob Soter, next to the 15-foot-tall “all-in-one rescue station” and flag tower. (Courtesy)

Trouble is, most Michigan beaches don’t have lifeguards. 


Addressing the lifeguard shortage would be more effective than upgrading beach alert systems, said Dave Benjamin, co-executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a drowning-prevention nonprofit.

Benjamin said beaches still need people to monitor conditions, which can change by the hour, and provide aid if someone is drowning. 

“We’re never going to stop saying they should bring back the lifeguards,” he said.

What to do if you’re drowning

Dave Benjamin, co-executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a drowning-prevention nonprofit.

advised that those who are drowning follow the “flip, float and follow” strategy:

  • Flip onto your back to conserve energy.
  • Float on your back, allowing you to breathe, rest, and calm down.
  • Follow the current, rather than fighting it. If you have energy to swim, travel perpendicular to the current’s flow. If you’re too tired, just float and try to signal for help.

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