SOUTH HAVEN, Mich. — In 2020, South Haven Area Emergency Services (SHAES) responded to 23 water rescues. Three people drowned in Lake Michigan off the city's beaches.
"Yeah, that was at least doubled from what we've responded to in the past," said Brandon Hinz, SHAES executive director.
Now, SHAES has a new tool: drones.
One drone has the ability to fly over the water and drop a floatation device to someone struggling in the water. The goal is to reduce the response time to save someone from drowning. Paramedic and firefighter Zachary Kenreich said it takes about four minutes for rescue crews to get to the lake from the station. Then, it is another one or two minutes until they are in the water.
"Speed is everything in these situations," said Kenreich. "Once someone goes under in warm water, they don’t have very long before they’re no longer, you know, not going to have long term damage."
A second drone is equipped with thermal-imaging to detect people lost in the water, or even in the woods.
Kenreich worked to bring the two drones to the department with the help of the Albermarle Foundation. The company provided a $7,500 grant to SHAES to purchase the devices.
"I think we’re probably one of the only departments who is this in depth with delivering floatation devices, at least in this area," said Kenreich. However, he hopes other departments can replicate a similar program to prevent further drownings.
Kenreich said a similar drone approach is used in Australia for ocean rescues.
The drone has a payload delivery system, which drops a CO2-charged, water activated floatation device.
Also new this year are two education measures on the flag warning system. One uses a QR code that will be placed around the city, giving a snapshot of the flag warnings for the day. A second will send a text message every time the flags are changed. When it is up and running, a person would text "BEACHES" to 888777 to receive the updates.
"This lake is a totally different animal," said Hinz. "A lot of people might not know the dangers of the lake. We take it for granted, we grew up here. So, visitors to the area might not know that."
RELATED VIDEO: South Haven revisits adding lifeguards to the beach.
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