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'There's no price on life': Recent drownings spark continued debate on lifeguards on Lake Michigan beaches

Big waves and strong currents on both Sunday and Monday claimed three lives, and since mid-July, a total of eight people have drowned.

SOUTH HAVEN, Mich. — Following several deadly drownings on the West Michigan lakeshore, the conversation around lifeguards on beaches has been sparked once again.

Big waves and strong currents on both Sunday and Monday claimed three lives, and since mid-July, a total of eight people have drowned.

RELATED: Wyoming man identified as victim in Grand Haven drowning

13 ON YOUR SIDE went to one of the beaches that's seen drownings, and a beach that is one of the few left that still has lifeguards. 

"How do you put a price on a life?" said Luke Bingeman, Head Lifeguard at Silver Beach County Park in St. Joseph, which is one of the only two beaches with lifeguards along Lake Michigan. The other is New Buffalo Beach.

In South Haven, there are no lifeguards on their beaches. It's also where two people were killed after drowning near the South beach Monday afternoon, and where several other fatal drownings happened this summer, as well.

RELATED: 2 people die after being pulled from Lake Michigan in South Haven

"Unfortunately tragedies do happen, and our condolences go out to the family," said Kate Hosier, South Haven's City Manager.

The deaths have again initiated questions about putting lifeguards on the beach, but Hosier said city leaders have no current plans to bring lifeguards back to the beach.

"In 2021, we had a very exhaustive discussion with the community about what we need and what are best practices," Hosier said, "and unfortunately, lifeguards did not survive that conversation."

But following the most recent double-drowning, 13 ON YOUR SIDE asked Hosier if they now plan to re-visit the conversation.

"At this time, no," Hosier responded.

Hosier said the 2021 discussion did, though, lead to some other safety improvements on the beach, like life jacket stations, pier throw bags and rings, call stations and code enforcement. She said they've already given out more than 25 tickets for $1,000 to people who've disobeyed the red flags. 

"It has been very aggressively enforced," Hosier explained. 

"No water is safe water," she added, "so, we hope people will understand what the flag systems mean, and pay attention to our rip current signs out there and the buoys."

So if lifeguards aren't on the table, 13 ON YOUR SIDE asked Hosier where the money from things like paid beach parking goes.

"There is a lot of maintenance that goes into the beaches as well as for South Haven Area Emergency Services (SHAES) and for code enforcement to be out there," Hosier explained. "It takes a lot of work on our part to make sure they are what they are."

But as the head lifeguard at one of the only beaches to still have them, Bingeman said he thinks it should be much more common. 

"We're here to save lives, and we have," Bingeman said. "Plus we're here to mitigate any problems, we are this beach's first responders."

According to Berrien County officials, lifeguards at Silver Beach make $11.75 an hour, and are allowed up to 1,000 hours of work every calendar year.

"It might cost a little more, but it's going to come back around and be worth it," said Bingeman. 

This summer at Silver Beach County Park, there are only lifeguards on duty Thursday through Sunday because of staffing shortages, which is why they still always encourage people to follow the flag conditions and stay vigilant in the water. 

"Just having lifeguards out there to educate and keep people safe is a fantastic tool for any beach to have," Bingeman said, "especially on red flag days."

"We're really focused on education, so we're out here walking the beach or in some sort of beach vehicle telling people they can't be in the water and explain to them why," he added. 

There are also no lifeguards at Grand Haven State Park, Holland State Park\, or any other state or county beach in Ottawa County.

Bingeman said he thinks that should change. 

"Lifeguards are trained professionals who know the dangers of the water and know how to spot them," Bingeman said. "So, it's all for your safety."

"We don't get off telling people to get out of the water, it honestly ruins our day when it's a red flag," he added, "but we're just trying to keep people safe, and ourselves safe too, because we want to go home at the end of the day."

For more information on water safety and tips for how to keep you and your family safe at the beach, click here


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