Objective: To enable communities to prevent drowning deaths at public beaches, deepen the public’s understanding of dangerous currents and waves, and share the tools, data sources, evaluation frameworks and outreach materials required to effectively target locations to install water safety and emergency rescue equipment.
Author: Bridget Faust, Association of State Floodplain Managers
Publication Date: September 12, 2015
In the summer of 2012, tragedy struck in Port Washington, Wisconsin when a young teenager was pulled away from the Lake Michigan shore by a rip current and subsequently drowned. The community was shocked by the event, with even the city's mayor remarking that he "never thought of it [Lake Michigan] as hazardous." Contrary to popular belief, dangerous currents are a regularly occurring and predictable threat to Great Lakes swimmers ("Research team warns against overlooking Great Lakes' Currents"). Since basin-wide monitoring began in 2002, more than 307 people have been rescued and 144 have drowned as a result of dangerous currents ("Great Lakes Current Incident Database"). Despite this statistic, the popular assumption that dangerous currents and waves are an anomaly in the Great Lakes region continues to propagate ("Research team warns against overlooking Great Lakes' Currents"). As a result, people are unknowingly placing themselves in harm's way.
Technological advances since 2010 have made dangerous current detection and reporting more reliable throughout the Great Lakes region, but even so, the number of deaths resulting from dangerous currents have continued to rise ("Big increase in the number of fatal drownings in the Great Lakes," "Research team warns against overlooking Great Lakes' Currents"). Between 2010 and 2014, the cumulative average of annual drowning deaths and rescues as a result of dangerous currents nearly doubled in comparison to the same statistics reported from 2002-2009 ("Great Lakes Current Incident Database"). In an effort to reduce fatalities and incidents, the Dangerous Currents Outreach and Beach Safety initiative has been implemented by local, municipal and state organizations. In Port Washington, outreach specialists distributed materials including publications, signs and equipment. Life rings and life jackets have been placed on the beach to help prevent fatalities ("Lake Michigan death spurs action on rip current awareness"). In fact, water safety and emergency rescue equipment is in high demand throughout the Great Lakes region.
A regional water safety collaborative (the Collaborative) including outreach experts from Illinois-Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin Sea Grant programs are leading efforts in collaboration with state Coastal Zone Management. With the help of a grant from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal Storms Program, the Collaborative is developing specific messaging, factsheets and videos targeted towards increasing the public's understanding of what dangerous currents are, as well as how to identify and escape them. In addition, the Collaborative has selected beaches along the Great Lakes' coast to install emergency rescue equipment that can be used to save individuals from dangerous currents. The Collaborative hopes that through their efforts, hundreds of new water safety and rescue equipment stations will be installed throughout the region ("Dangerous Currents Outreach Projects"). This Collaborative is the first of its kind to work together to target locations for rescue equipment and to enhance parents' and youths' understanding of dangerous currents at a regional scale.
The purpose of this case study is to enable communities to protect beachgoers from drowning by providing them with the framework, tools and outreach materials necessary to replicate the actions taken by this interagency team.
Elements of Beach Safety
Preparing for dangerous waves and currents can seem like a daunting undertaking. To protect beachgoers on a limited budget, communities need to understand how to:
- Communicate the risks of dangerous currents and waves;
- Collect and distill information about how weather, climate and other environmental conditions affect or contribute to them;
- Select specific items of safety and rescue equipment that may be used in the region; and
- Protect themselves from being held liable for missing equipment.
By answering a few key questions related to each of these water safety issues, communities will gain a basic understanding of each subject and learn where they can find more information.
1. What are dangerous currents and waves? What different types exist and how can they be identified? What causes dangerous currents and waves?
A dangerous current is generally described as any Great Lakes or ocean current that is travelling away from or parallel to shore at or above 2 miles per hour. Dangerous waves are defined as waves having a 3-5 second wave period, and/or a 3-5 foot wave height. Dangerous waves and currents can be deadly independently, but when they occur simultaneously, beach conditions become treacherous.
In the Great Lakes region, multiple types of dangerous currents exist. The three that cause the most current-related incidents are rip currents, structural currents and longshore currents. Although they do not cause as many dangerous current-related incidents, outlet and channel currents have also been documented in the Great Lakes region. Each type of dangerous current is formed in a unique way and has different characteristics and risks to swimmers.
Rip Currents: flow away from shore. Rip current can be identified by the mushroom shaped plume of sand and debris that they carry out into the open water and frequently appear as a section of choppy or even calm water between breaking waves. Rip currents form when waves break over a sandbar that is near the shoreline. Over time, these breaking waves cause water and momentum to build up between them and the shore. To relieve this growing pressure, water rapidly flows or "rips" away from shore through small breaks in the sandbar. Read more at dangerouscurrents.org...
Structural Currents: are only found near objects like piers and breakwalls, and flow parallel to these structures and away from shore. These currents are almost always present adjacent to structures and should be presumed to be there. Structural currents form when longshore currents abruptly intersect a breakwall, pier or peninsula, forcing water to flow parallel to the structure and lakeward. Read More...
Longshore Currents: flow parallel to the shore and are usually found between the first and second sandbars. Floating debris moving parallel to the shore is a critical indicator of longshore currents. Longshore currents are formed when waves approach the shore at an angle. As they break along shore, water is pushed parallel to the shore in one direction. In general longshore currents increase in intensity when waves are high and intersect the shore at a 45 degree angle. Read more at dangerouscurrents.org...
Outlet Currents: are found where river-mouths empty into a lake. Outlet currents are formed when a connecting stream or river is moving very quickly into the lake. As water flows from the connecting waterbody outward into the lake, it does not gently disperse. Rather it keeps its momentum carving a path outward towards open water. Longshore currents when intersecting the river mouth enhance currents in the area. Eventually these currents lose their momentum but the distance over which they can travel is often times unpredictable. The presence of a fast moving river and sediments moving outwards into open water is a key identifying factor. Read more at dangerouscurrents.org...
Channel Currents: flow parallel to the shore, and are found between the shore and large off-shore structures like rock reefs or islands. Channel currents are frequently likened to a river running parallel to the shore, and can be identified by debris moving rapidly. These currents occur when winds force water to flow between the shore and a large off-shore structure with the resulting bottle-neck effect causing water to speed up as it moves through the narrow channel. Because wind direction and speed are large factors in their occurrence, it can be difficult to predict when channel currents will form. Read more (PDF)...
2. What environmental factors impact or amplify their effects?
In order to predict what changes in the environment may increase the likelihood of dangerous current and wave formation, managers and community leaders need guidance on what factors have the ability to amplify their risk of occurrence. Dangerous currents are primarily impacted by four factors: lake level fluctuations, beach bathymetry, seiche and kelvin wave events and elevated wind speeds. Changes in any or a combination of these factors can either increase or decrease the likelihood that they will form (Upwellings, 2004).
Courtesy of The COMET Program
In general, beaches with a gentle sloping bathymetry have a higher likelihood of producing dangerous currents than those with steeper slopes, especially rip currents. This is because beaches with a gentle slope tend to have a wider surf zone. In the surf zone, water is transported towards the shore in small broken waves which seem to continually break until they reach the shore. This ultimately allows for more water to reach the beach, however, this continuous onslaught of breaking waves allows for very little water to retreat back out to the lake. This eventually causes the water to set up or rise above the still water elevation. This rise in water elevation causes a pressure gradient to form along the beach, and rip currents form to relieve the pressure ("Rip Currents: Nearshore Fundamentals, 2012").
Beaches with steeper bathymetry produce fewer and weaker rip currents because incoming waves break close to the shore, this creates a much smaller surf zone and ultimately does not result in the same set-up effect observed on beaches with gentle slopes. That being said, steeper slopes also come with their own set of risks. In this case, because the surf zone is smaller, larger waves are allowed to break closer to shore. As was previously mentioned, waves with a significant height and a short period can also be deadly regardless of dangerous currents (Rip Currents: Nearshore Fundamentals, 2012; Upwellings, 2004).
Courtesy of The COMET Program
The Great Lakes are subject to short term, seasonal, decadal and multi-decadal fluctuations in water levels. These lake level fluctuations affect dangerous currents and further complicate their prediction. As water levels rise, the off-shore sand bars that often cause waves to break become covered with water. As a result, the breaker zone or the zone in which waves begin to break moves closer to shore and the surf zone becomes smaller, generally resulting in a lowered risk of rip currents. In most cases, lowered lake levels increase the likelihood that dangerous currents will form. One notable exception to this general rule is structural currents. In this case, elevated lake levels can increase their severity while significantly lowered lake levels reduce the threat that they pose ("Rip Currents: Nearshore Fundamentals, 2012").
If you are interested in learning more about how dangerous currents form and other factors affect them, The COMET Program, a group established by the NOAA’s National Weather Service and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, has produced a short training on dangerous currents. This self-guided, short and informative course features graphics, videos and quiz questions related to dangerous currents.
For additional information on dangerous currents in the Great Lakes region, one critical resource is Dangerouscurrents.org, a website created by Michigan Sea Grant. This web resource is Great Lakes-specific and features useful infographics, outreach materials and two lessons (“Dangerous Currents 101” and “Dangerous Currents Don’t Get Swept Away”) targeting teens and young adults.
Dangerous currents can also be impacted by daily changes in wind speed and direction. Elevated wind speed has the power to increase wave height and period. When this occurs all dangerous currents and waves become more prevalent and deadly. Changes in wind direction can alter the angle at which waves intersect the shore. In general longshore currents and rip currents are the strongest when waves intersects the shoreline at a 45 degree angle. If waves are parallel to the shore the risk of dangerous currents forming decreases drastically, except when near a shoreline structure ("Rip Currents: Nearshore Fundamentals, 2012"). Prolonged high speed winds also have the ability to trigger phenomena called seiche events and Kelvin waves. Seiche events occur when strong winds and changes in atmospheric pressure, often triggered by strong storms, push water from one end of a body of water to the other. When the wind stops the water rushes back to the other end of the waterbody, similar to the movement of water in a bathtub ("What is a seiche?"). Kelvin waves occur when winds allow cold water to rise to the surface, the resulting change lake-wide pressure gradients and interactions with the Coriolis force create the shore-bound wave.
Both of these events can cause drastic changes in lake elevation in a matter of hours, which directly impacts the likelihood of dangerous currents and waves (Upwellings, 2004).
3. What types of rescue equipment exist? Which types are the most effective?
Drowning death prevention is not solely dependent on accurate prediction of dangerous currents and waves or well-orchestrated outreach. There will always be a subset of the population who is unwilling to heed posted warnings or is unaware of eminent danger. As a result, having water safety and rescue equipment with clear directions on how to use them near the beach is essential to preventing loss of life. The types and quantity of water safety and rescue equipment placed on each beach will be highly dependent on site specific details such as the type of hazards which tend to form, beach visitation rates and the facilities available to house equipment.
In general, a few critical pieces of equipment should be considered when designing any water safety or rescue equipment kit (pictured below):
1. Youth-Sized Life Jackets
2. Adult Life Vests
3. Rescue Throw Ring Buoys
4. Rescue Tubes
5. Rescue Throw Bags
6. Rescue Boards
Photo Credits (from left to right): 1. Adult (Rescue) Life Vest, courtesy of OH DNR. 2. Youth (Loaner) Life Jacket, courtesy of OH DNR, 3. Rescue Equipment Station Including: Life Jackets, Rescue Board and Rescue Throw Ring Buoy, courtesy of MI Sea Grant, and 4. Rescue Throw Bag Demonstration, courtesy of Stephanie Ariganello MI Sea Grant
A list of equipment with specifications and a set of best management practices for theft prevention was created by the Great Lakes Water Safety Project, a pilot project which proceeded the formation of the Collaborative and the actions documented in this case study. This list has been vetted by the Collaborative and should be used for additional guidance. Read more...
The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project offers training on how to escape dangerous currents as well as how to properly utilize many of the previously listed pieces of equipment. For additional information on the types of training being offered, please visit their training schedule.
4. Will my community be held liable if rescue equipment is stolen or fails?
Many states across the nation grant government agencies immunity from liability under state tort claims acts. That said, the specific agencies, as well as the activities for which they are granted immunity, are dependent on state law. As a result, communities concerned with being held liable for damaged or stolen rescue equipment should discuss the matter with legal counsel.
According to a National Sea Grant Law Center analysis on the installation of beach safety kits on state-managed public beaches, in order to be held liable for lost or stolen equipment the managing agency must fail to meet a standard of reasonable care. In this case, reasonable care refers to the care with which a reasonable person or entity in the same position would recognize as necessary to prevent the act from creating unreasonable risk or harm to another. This reasonable care standard could be upheld if the managing agency were to create a check list to ensure that all equipment is present and meets safety standards. Read More...
The Michigan Senate is working to pass a bill that would codify this general rule into a law that applies to water safety and rescue equipment. Other Great Lakes states should consider using this bill's language as a model for their own legislation in the future.
When the time came to select which beaches would receive water safety and emergency rescue equipment, as well as what equipment each beach would receive, the Regional Water Safety Collaborative divided up into state working groups. In general, each working group met with local partners to develop and use a set of criteria to target locations for beach safety equipment. These criteria included: number of rescues and/or fatalities at specific beaches, level of community buy-in, average annual visitation, types of currents and waves observed and identification of a responsible local partner to install and monitor equipment.
To help communities as they facilitate this decision-making process, the ranking matrix below has been developed. This matrix is modeled off the general criteria and data used by each state working group to identify and prioritize public beaches to install water safety and emergency rescue equipment.
The criteria used to rank each public beach being considered will depend on the scale of the water safety and rescue equipment deployment initiative, as well as the resources available to the community, county or regional working group seeking to implement it. It should be noted that this matrix will not meet the specific needs of every community. This matrix is intended to act as a tested-foundation upon which users can build to reflect their needs. Communities, counties or regional working groups who use this matrix should involve all project partners, as well as relevant state and local agencies to ensure that there is collective buy-in from all involved parties. The process through which decision are made about what criteria to use in the evaluation as well as what weight to assign to each criterion must also be transparent. The NOAA has published a series of publications focused on public meeting planning and facilitation, and can offer critical guidance at this stage of the beach evaluation process. Please note: this spreadsheet will not meet the needs of every community and should be modified on an as needed basis.
Much of the data required to complete this evaluation matrix is made available through web-based tools. One essential resource is the Great Lakes Current Incident Database. Since 2002, the NWS and Michigan Sea Grant have partnered to collect, organize and share data on dangerous currents. Users can search the database by year, state or even specific beach locations and find data on the types of currents observed, wave direction and height, as well as the number of fatalities and rescues that occurred each year. This resource also has a map-based home page that allows users to visualize where each dangerous current incident occurred.
Specific data on average annual beach visitation rates is not compiled in a single database at this time. That said, often times municipal parks and recreation staff, state departments of natural resources and/or state park managers maintain these data. Additional resources that may contain helpful information or become critical partners in beach evaluation and ranking process are local Sea Grant or University Extension staff, local or state emergency management professionals and local water safety groups.
Distributing Equipment and Best Practices
In May 2015, the Collaborative distributed more than 2000 pieces of safety and rescue equipment to beaches across the Great Lakes basin.
In an effort to protect the rescue equipment purchased through this grant project, the Collaborative worked with local government units to ensure that they were bought-in to the initiative. In addition, the Collaborative has shared a series of best practices that were formulated during the implementation of a similar water safety project in Michigan. The following best practices were stressed:
1. All equipment should be tagged with "property of" messages using a permanent marker or paint.
2. If theft is recurring, consider removing all safety and rescue equipment at time of park closure and deploying it again before park opening in the morning.
3. Include an emergency procedures sheet with rescue equipment that focuses on the proper use of equipment.
4. Conduct regular water safety training sessions and include opportunities for municipal staff to practice using equipment.
5. During the swimming season, equipment should be monitored 1-2 times per day.
In addition to targeting beaches and installing water safety equipment, the Collaborative also worked to develop a targeted messaging strategy to raise awareness of dangerous currents and waves. In 2013, NOAA contracted the Eastern Research Group (ERG) to complete a study on the general public's perception of dangerous current and wave risk in the Great Lakes region, and to analyze the most successful/impactful outreach techniques for reaching target audiences with swim hazard information. After completing multiple surveys and expert interviews, ERG found that messages that stressed "avoidance" were the best received by the general public. ERG also found that strategies that sought to reach the general public before they arrive at the beach, when they arrive at the beach, and before they get in the water, were the most effective at raising awareness of dangerous currents and waves (ERG, 2014).
Armed with ERG's findings, as well as conclusions from the great, risk communitication and research projects funded through the Michigan Department of Environemental Quality, the Collaborative developed the "Be Current Smart" campaign, which was rolled out in the summer of 2015 in conjunction with the placement of the water safety and rescue equipment. The materials produced for this campaign include educational videos, graphics that are pre-formatted for social media (below), rack cards, beach sign templates, curriculums, as well as descriptions and diagrams of dangerous currents.
All of these resources are available online and can be downloaded for free. Effective communication and outreach was essential to the success of the Implementing Dangerous Currents Best Practices project. Simple and strategic outreach not only helps to prevent the general public from entering the water when conditions are unsafe, but also empowers them to take action during a crisis. Providing free access to these communication resources will be an asset to communities installing water safety and rescue equipment on their own beaches as they are essential to the implementation process.