Last summer, in response to the tragic drowning of 13-year-old Darihanne Torres on Loyola Park Beach, I convened a Lakefront Water Safety Task Force to develop a list of recommended actions and policy measures to minimize the risk of future drownings and make our wonderful lakefront safer for everyone.
The Task Force consists of a “dream team” of community advocates, government leaders, experts in public health and first responders who have been meeting since late last summer to develop a recommended Lakefront Safety Plan. Below is an update on this group’s work and a list of preliminary recommendations.
I urge you to take a look at the preliminary recommendations and offer your suggestions and insights. The Task Force will take into account all comments my office receives as it fashions its final report.
The Lakefront Water Safety Task Force is comprised of the head of beaches and pools for the Chicago Park District, representatives from the marine units of Chicago Fire Department and Chicago Police Department, the manager of physical education for Chicago Public Schools.
The Task Force also includes aquatics leaders from across the region, including public health experts from Lurie Children’s Hospital and representatives from advocacy organizations Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project and Make the Minute Matter. Community resident Halle Quezada Rasmussen, a CPS teacher and water safety advocate, who was present at the beach with her family when Darihanne Torres drowned, also is a member of the task force.
For a complete list of Task Force members, scroll to the bottom of this email.
It is awe-inspiring to be a part of this group of incredibly knowledgeable, talented and passionate advocates as they engage in very important conversations about water safety and saving lives.
I charged the Task Force with developing recommendations in three main areas that public agencies and stakeholders should undertake to enhance water safety:
- Increase public awareness.
- Immediate actions.
- Long-term policy goals.
Many of these recommendations already have been implemented.
As the Task Force was taking shape, my office joined with our public safety partners to raise public awareness. Last August, I joined the Park District, Police Department and Fire Department in organizing a Lakefront Water Safety Demonstration, which included fire boats, safety tips, and tables displaying the specialized equipment and training our City uses to protect and rescue beachgoers and watercraft occupants.
I plan to work with the Task Force this spring to hold a series of water safety events for Chicago Public Schools students, with the goal of educating as many youth as possible on how to stay safe in the water and respond to emergency situations. Additionally, Chicago Public Schools and the Fire Department are working to develop a water safety curriculum that students across the system will experience annually.
Immediate actions to improve safety
The Park District did not wait for a Task Force report to begin implementing a number of operations improvements to enhance water safety. The Park District posted new signs and flags to better inform beachgoers that it is only safe to swim when lifeguards are present. New signs also advise the public of hazards that exist at our lakefront – especially around structures like piers and jetties.
Additionally, the Chicago Park District conducted a nationwide survey of lifeguard hours and staffing to determine how to best use limited resources in making our lakefront safe. They are considering a budget proposal to extend lifeguard hours at Chicago beaches.
The Chicago Fire Department has equipped all of its land and water vehicles with water rescue equipment and is developing a public education campaign to inform the public on how to report accurately the nature and location of a water emergency.
The Fire Department also completed a study documenting when and where drownings occur. This study complements research that Lurie Children’s Hospital conducted on fatal and nonfatal drownings. Armed with this research, the Task Force members are confident they are building a comprehensive understanding of drowning in Chicago to help inform future policy decisions.
Amidst calls to extend lifeguard hours, the Task Force discovered a deeper challenge that goes beyond simply identifying a funding source. Chicago does not have not have enough qualified lifeguards and needs to build its pipeline of candidates to staff all its beaches this coming summer and beyond.
The Chicago Park District is building its lifeguard workforce by adding more lifeguard classes (including within Chicago Public Schools facilities), expanding opportunities to take certification tests, and creating partnerships to recruit guards from throughout the city. The Park District is stymied in these efforts by a lack of adequate facilities and programming to make water safety part of the culture for all Chicagoans.
Chicago Public Schools and the Park District are working to maximize swimming opportunities throughout Chicago. Locally, I am in talks with CPS and the Park District to enter into a joint effort to repair Sullivan High School’s swimming pool, which has been out of commission for the last year.
Following several months of discussion and research, the Task Force developed more than a dozen preliminary policy suggestions to be submitted to various policy-making bodies, including the Chicago City Council, Chicago Park District Board and the Illinois General Assembly. These policy suggestions include standardizing beach signage across the entire Illinois coast of Lake Michigan, providing specialized life safety equipment at beaches, improving first-responder coordination and creating a citywide water safety plan to prevent drownings.
Below are the task force’s preliminary policy recommendations:
- Chicago Park District should expand lifeguarding capacity at Chicago beaches by extending the lifeguard hours and season and increasing the budget for lifeguard staffing, training and recruitment; lifeguard feeder programs, and water quality testing.
- Municipalities and park districts throughout the Chicago area should use consistent language and visuals for water safety signs and educational materials.
- The City of Chicago and other government entities with jurisdiction over lakefront access points should bar entry into the water at high-risk locations and post warnings with effective messages to deter risky behavior. High risk locations include areas where structural currents are present and areas inaccessible to patrol and response.
- The Chicago Fire Department, Police Department and Office of Emergency Management and Communication should update rescue and response procedures, including call taker protocols, to collect and communicate information to first-responders enroute to the scene of an emergency.
- The Chicago Fire Department should purchase, staff and license a second fast boat to enable the department to respond to multiple emergencies.
- Chicago Fire Department should include positioning systems on all equipment to aid dispatch and response.
- Chicago area governments should streamline inter-agency communication for emergency response.
- The City of Chicago should equip all police and fire vehicles with water rescue equipment.
- The Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communication, Fire Department and Police Department should train all first-responders to consistently manage the scene of drownings and near-drownings.
- The City of Chicago and water safety advocates should train Chicago residents in water safety, with an emphasis on youth and communities most at risk of drowning. Chicago Public Schools should provide water safety training, on par with fire, tornado, and active shooter response and the Chicago Fire and Police Departments and the Chicago Park District should conduct annual water safety demonstrations and outreach events.
- Chicago area governments and injury prevention organizations should use consistent standards for drowning and near-drowning data collection, compiled by one central source. Data should be used in the creation and evaluation of policies and prevention programs.
- Water safety advocates and professionals should create a Chicago region prevention-centered water safety plan to reduce the incidence of drownings and near-drownings.
In the coming weeks, the Task Force will be finalizing the recommendations and formulating an advocacy plan for these policies. I urge you to take a look at the preliminary recommendations and offer your suggestions and insights. Please reply to this email or contact my office at (773) 338-5796.
The Task Force will take into account all comments my office receives as it fashions its final report.
The past few months of work with neighbors and water safety experts has been truly inspirational. I believe the efforts of this task force will result in meaningful improvements to how Rogers Park residents and all Chicagoans enjoy our wonderful lakefront safely.
Lakefront Water Safety Task Force Members
- Adam Abajian, Recreation Program Manager, City of Evanston Lakefront Operations, and former Chicago Park District lifeguard
- Dave Benjamin, Executive Director, Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project
- Katy Bradford, Assistant Lakefront Manager, Village of Wilmette Park District
- Mary Kate Daly, Executive Director, Lurie Children’s Hospital Healthy Communities
- Ronald Dorneker, Deputy District Chief (ret.), Marine and Dive Operations, Chicago Fire Department
- Eric Fischer, Manager of Beaches and Pools, Chicago Park District
- Eileen Hare, Health and Physical Education Manager, Chicago Public Schools
- Amy Hill, Project Manager, Injury Free Coalition for Kids, Lurie Children’s Hospital
- Carol Kim, Project Manager, Chicago Park District
- Kim Kreiling, Natural Resources Specialist, Coastal Management Program, Illinois Department of Natural Resources
- Paul Mack, Lieutenant, Chicago Police Department Marine Unit
- John Masters, Chicago Park District Rescue Unit
- Halle Quezada Rasmussen, Co-Founder, Chicago Alliance for Waterfront Safety
- Timothy Walsh, Chief of Special Operations, Chicago Fire Department
- Lucas Wise, Sergeant, Chicago Police Department Marine Unit
- Rebecca Wear Robinson, President, Make the Minute Matter, Inc.