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New stations on Park Point aimed at aiding beach rescues

Cheryl Podtburg of Duluth, aquatics director at the Duluth YMCA, demonstrates the use of a rescue ring at the Park Point Beach in Duluth on Friday afternoon. Four rescue ring stations have been installed on the Park Point Beach. (Clint Austin / / 3
Jesse Schomberg with Minnesota Sea Grant talks about the four rescue stations that have been installed at Park Point during a news conference Friday at the 12th Street Beach on Park Point in Duluth. (Clint Austin / / 3
Bob Pokorney of Duluth, a member of Park Point Volunteer Surf Rescue, demonstrates the use of a rescue ring at the Park Point Beach in Duluth on Friday afternoon. Four rescue ring stations have been installed on the Park Point Beach. (Clint Austin / / 3

Duluth's beaches may just have gotten a little safer.

On Friday, Duluth Fire Chief Dennis Edwards unveiled four life ring stations that have been installed at Park Point beachfronts, including the south pier at 700 S. Lake Ave., the S-curve at 1200 S. Lake Ave., the Lafayette Community Center at 3200 Minnesota Ave., and the Park Point Beach House at 4800 Minnesota Ave.

"I'm excited to be here today to announce another step in the right direction for beach safety in Duluth," Edwards said.

He noted that the new rescue buoys could be used by beach-goers to possibly save a life.

"This is one more layer in a system designed to inform and keep the public safe from what some people call a silent danger on the Great Lakes, and that's rip currents," he said.

Edwards noted that 73 drowning deaths have been reported in the Great Lakes so far this year, and last year 55 people perished in the same waters.

Despite the death toll elsewhere, Edwards said: "I am happy to say that here in Duluth, we haven't had a swimming death or significant water rescue since the beach flag program started in 2010."

Duluth posts green flags when the risk of swimming is low but flies yellow and red flags on its beaches when conditions threaten to produce rip currents.

Fire Capt. Brent Consie said public awareness of the dangers of rip currents has improved, largely as a result of educational outreach efforts.

"Each of us has our own connection to the lake, but together we must recognize that we need to give it proper respect when it demands it of us. So I would urge you to adopt a 'know-before-you-go' strategy before heading out to the beach," he said.

But Bob Pokorney, a member of the Park Point Volunteer Surf Rescue Squad, said many people still fail to heed the warnings.

"I can say anecdotally that we're down here every day that there are waves, and there are always people swimming on red flag days," he said. "There may be fewer than before, but there's always someone in the water."

Pokorney said he most often encounters young men in the surf and suggested that many of them seem to possess a false sense of security derived from past experience swimming in rough conditions. He noted that just because swimmers haven't encountered a dangerous rip current previously provides no guarantee that they won't in the future.

Last year, Pokorney said he and his colleagues performed two rescues of struggling swimmers, but calmer conditions this year have resulted in no repeat events this season.

Consie encouraged people to visit for an update on current weather conditions and the forecast before hitting the beach in Duluth.

He also asked people to familiarize themselves with the rescue stations, making note of the location identification card for reporting any emergency to authorities. Each station is equipped with a rescue ring attached to a floating rope. Consie said that in a rescue situation, the ring should be thrown beyond the struggling swimmer so they can grab the rope and climb to safety.

He warned against untrained rescue attempts by onlookers, explaining that often would-be rescuers find themselves in danger, making a difficult situation even tougher for emergency responders.

Jesse Schomberg, an educator for the Minnesota Sea Grant, said he has been working to address the danger of rip currents since 2004.

"That was the year after a young gentleman by the name of Matthew Rheume died here, right on Park Point, in a rip current. It was the first time that we really became aware that we had rip currents on Park Point, and that they were a real danger to us," he said.

Funding for the rescue gear came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal Storms Program. The Duluth Parks and Recreation Department also chipped in $3,000 to cover additional costs associated with setting up the rescue stations.

Schomberg said ideally the rescue stations would have been in place earlier this summer. But he explained that a lot of legwork went into the initiative.

"There are liability laws that the state of Minnesota has. We actually had an analysis done by the Sea Grant Law Center to double check on the issues. And the critical piece was that so long as the community had a policy in place that they followed for checking up and maintaining equipment ... then the city is doing its best to try to help people, and that liability issue is resolved," Schomberg said.

Edwards said the city will be checking on the rescue station regularly, but he also expects to receive some help from the neighborhood.

"I think the residents of Park Point are in love with these beaches, so I think they're going to help us keep an eye on the equipment also," he said.