Almost exactly a year ago, an article on the Traveler asked the question, "How Far Should National Park Rangers Go To Safeguard Your Life?" The story generated a lot of discussion, including reader comments that parks needed to be more proactive when it comes to visitor safety.
The staff at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore deserves credit for a program designed to reduce the risk of drowning in that park, and their efforts paid off during the recently-ended summer season. According to information from the park,
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore completed a busy summer season on Labor Day with more than 1 million visitors coming to the national park: the top tourism destination in Indiana.
There were no drownings this summer, a success the National Park Service partially attributes to an increased water safety program instituted after the summer of 2008. “While we cannot say that our changes were directly related to the lack of drownings, we did make a number of improvements to our water safety program this year, “said park superintendent Constantine Dillon.
Those improvements included assigning rangers and volunteers to provide safety information and assistance to visitors. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day rangers and volunteers contacted more than 77,000 visitors on the beaches and at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Visitor Center, and those efforts were carefully planned to get the greatest value from the time invested.
The park conducted a thorough analysis of the 13 drownings that have occurred in the park since 1995; three of those occurred in 2008, which makes this year's turn-around even more impressive. The park's study provided information on the time of day, location, weather conditions and other factors associated with each incident. It also revealed that all of the previous incidents occurred after 1 p.m., almost 70% were on weekends, and 84% occurred when waves on the lake were two feet or higher.
Armed with this information, the staff was able to focus their program on times and locations with the greatest risks, and the park also posted new shoreline safety signs with a clear message that the waves are dangerous.
“Visitors have been reading the signs and asking questions of the roving staff,” stated Chief Ranger Mike Bremer. “We have seen a change in behavior,” continued Bremer. “Two weeks ago it was a beautiful day, but there was a strong north wind and most visitors heeded the warnings from signs and rangers and did not to go into the waters of Lake Michigan.”
Other improvements included water safety information in the park’s Singing Sands newspaper and on the park’s website. The park also conducted a Water Safety Program Analysis in a partnership with the Student Conservation Association. That study was concluded in August and its findings will be used to make additional improvements to the water safety operations.
The park staff is encouraging visitors to continue to think about safety, even though the peak summer season is over. They note,
While Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer, the swimming season is not over. The warm late summer days lure folks back to the lake. Late summer and fall squalls of Lake Michigan are legendary and extremely dangerous and visitors need to know their own ability.
The lifeguards are gone from West Beach which means that visitors have to be even more aware of water conditions and practice water safety including not going into the water alone and staying out of the water when there are white caps to the horizon.
Congratulations to the staff at Indiana Dunes for an excellent effort. Such programs obviously can't guarantee visitor safety; they can only focus on times and locations of highest risk, and they're more easily applied in relatively compact areas. Even so, the summer of 2009 was clearly a success for water safety at the Lakeshore. Let's hope many of those visitors will remember what they learned this year on future visits to this, and any other, park.