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Lifeguard wage hike pays off for Michigan City

From the ICYMI: Here are the most-read stories from the past week series
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MICHIGAN CITY — Starting today, Washington Park will have a full complement of lifeguards, Park Superintendent Ed Shinn said.

That’s 14 lifeguards. Two who still need to be certified will remain land-based, helping with things like first aid until they receive their lifeguard certification.

"We increased that wage rate," Shinn said. "Money talks."

The city earlier this year decided to increase the starting wage for lifeguards to $25 an hour after it struggled to get enough applicants for a full staff. Now, Shinn is establishing relationships with the LaPorte County YMCA and Michigan City Piranhas swim team to recruit lifeguards for future summers.

The lifeguards showed off their lifesaving skills this week at a water safety demonstration.

Volunteer Nate DeVore, of Porter, walked backward into Lake Michigan until he was deep enough to show what a drowning person looks like.

If you expected a drowning person to show a lot of action, waving their arms wildly and jumping up and down in the water, you’d be surprised.

“Drowning doesn’t look like drowning,” Indiana Conservation Officer Tyler Brock said. It’s a quiet death, with the swimmer sinking under water, then rising out of the water before sinking again. During rescues, it’s vital that a person spot where the swimmer went underwater so rescuers can find the person nearby.

As of Friday afternoon, 43 people have drowned in the Great Lakes so far this year, according to Dave Benjamin of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. That includes 20 in Lake Michigan. A total of 989 drownings have been reported in the Great Lakes since 2010, he said. 

Chris Blake, assistant coach for the Michigan City Piranhas swim team and public information for the Michigan City Fire Department, told his team and others to remember the mantra, “Flip, float, flow.”

That’s as essential as remembering “stop, drop, roll,” head lifeguard Jess Arnett said.

A swimmer in trouble should flip onto their back and float while raising an arm and yelling to attract the attention of rescuers. And rather than fight the current, go with the flow to save strength.

Arnett is a tri-athlete, so she has extensive experience in swimming in open water. “All of us are athletes," she said of her team of lifeguards. “We have some degree of open water experience.”

As a team, they train and swim for an hour when they arrive at 9 a.m. and then start guarding the beach at 10 a.m. Arnett likes to “get a good workout in the morning and hope for an uneventful day.”

Each lifeguard is assigned a zone to watch from the lifeguard station. Lifeguards watch swimmers’ hands, faces and position in the water.

“Our goal is to be preventative,” Arnett said, and look for risky behavior.

When a rescue is needed, there’s a lot of adrenaline, she said. Lifeguards rush to the water and walk quickly out to the swimmer in trouble.

Lifeguards are trained to approach in a way that doesn’t let them grab the rescuer. They’re also trained how to escape if that happens.

“We have had officers drown trying to rescue people, unfortunately,” Brock said.

For the Department of Natural Resources, the lesson to remember is “reach, throw, row and go.”

“You want to avoid having to go out into the water,” Brock said. If there’s a branch or something to reach the swimmer, use that. If there’s a life ring or rope, throw that. If necessary, use a boat to go out to the person in trouble. The “go” message is to go get help.

Michigan City is planning to buy personal watercraft designed for rescues, Shinn said. The watercraft can hold two lifeguards with a platform in back to transport a troubled swimmer back to shore. The propeller is also covered to make sure nothing gets tangled in it.

“I think this is actually more treacherous than the ocean,” Arnett said.

Blake warned that lake conditions change frequently. “These sandbars, every day can change,” he said.

“The lake is constantly changing,” Brock said. "Just because it was 2 or 3 feet yesterday doesn’t mean it will be today.”

The Piranhas team trains primarily at the Michigan City High School pool, which has a constant, flat bottom, unlike Lake Michigan. Swimmers are age 5 through high school. “We give them the ability to swim safely in the water” with swimming lessons, Blake said.



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