Senate Bill 424 was submerged when the Indiana House Natural Resources Committee refused to hear it at the beginning of the month.
SB 424 would have required safety stations to be placed on piers and at all public access points on Lake Michigan. The bill would have gone into effect July 1 and required a minimum of 100 stations to be installed — each including a life ring, weather-proof case and durable rope about 100 feet in length.
“People need to understand, drowning is a public health issue,” said Dave Benjamin, co-founder and executive director of Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. “Stuff like this should be mandated and required. There shouldn’t be resistance.”
Members from the newly founded Lake Michigan Water Front Safety Initiative–Indiana, traveled to the Statehouse on Feb. 20 to testify on behalf of the bill. Each person’s testimony led the Senate Committee on Natural Resources to unanimously pass SB 424.
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In early April, members from GLSRP and the safety initiative met with House Natural Resources Chairman Shane Lindauer, R-Jasper, on Zoom. However, Lindauer refused to hear the bill, Benjamin said.
“It’s not ’if’ someone will drown in Lake Michigan this summer, but ’when’ someone will drown," he said. "And then we will have to question if life rings would have made a difference in saving a life for each drowning incident.”
Without proper safety equipment, there will be a continued ripple effect for every drowning victim in Lake Michigan, Benjamin said.
Last year, 45 of the 108 Great Lakes drownings occurred in Lake Michigan, according to GLSRP. Statistics at the group’s website dating to 2013 show that Lake Michigan has had the most drownings annually compared with Erie, Superior, Huron and Ontario.
“If you look at those drowning victims, a lot of them are young,” said Beth Froese of Carol Stream, Illinois.
Froese’s daughter Chase and her friends were driving back to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on the evening of July 31, 2015, when they decided to make a pit stop at Porter Beach. The three girls wanted to take a quick dip in the lake before continuing their journey.
Upon arrival to the beach, the three girls noticed other people swimming in the lake despite the choppy waves. The girls entered the water around 6:30 p.m.
Chase quickly realized that the 2- to 4-foot waves were causing the girls to float farther from the shore. The 20-year-old continued to drift away from her friends.
Two bystanders who saw that the girls needed help had access to flotation devices, a kickboard and kayak. However, they lost sight of Chase.
Nearly two days passed before the Lake County Sheriff’s Department recovered Chase’s body.
“I don’t know if a life ring would have changed the outcome for Chase since they lost sight of her, but the flotation devices for the other two girls was paramount,” said her father, Greg Froese. “Every second and minute matters. When a call goes to 911 because someone is in distress, it’s already too late.”
Chase Froese was the oldest of four children and known for her passion for music. She was a junior at Calvin, studying psychology and philosophy. She also worked at the university’s Starbucks.
“She was very relational and a lover of people,” her mother recalls. “We had a great relationship with her. She was a good kid.”
To say the Froese family is disappointed with the rejection of SB 424 is an understatement.
“It’s a starting bill. A basic, bare-bones bill,” Beth said. “It’s a very little ask for a very big outcome.”
Bob Pratt, co-founder and executive director of GLSRP, said drowning "will kill more school-aged people than fires, tornadoes, school shooters and earthquakes combined, but there’s still no water-safety education in schools. It’s frustrating work when every year we’ve averaged more than 100 fatal drownings on the five Great Lakes.”
GLSRP is a nonprofit that has been advocating for water safety for the past 12 years. It teaches water safety across the Great Lakes, in addition to tracking every drowning.
“It gives us no satisfaction to remind people after the fact that they missed the opportunity with Senate Bill 424,” Pratt said. “We’re at these beaches doing something we love, like surfing, knowing if it’s a warm, windy, wavy weekend there’s probably someone drowning on the Great Lakes.”
GLSRP and the Lake Michigan Water Front Safety Initiative plan to continue expressing the importance of installing safety stations. But if there’s a drowning, Benjamin said, it will have to be noted how a life ring could have changed the outcome.
He emphasizes that more than $100 million has been invested over the past 12 years into beach restoration projects in Hammond, Whiting, Gary, Portage and Michigan City. In comparison, 100 safety stations would cost about $100,000 and be a starting point for water safety on Lake Michigan.
“We’re representing a group of family members who’ve lost their family members to these beaches,” he said. “We’re very dissatisfied, and it’s inexcusable.”
For more information on water safety visit glsrp.org.