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A Drone Is Swooping In To Assist Lifeguards On Lake Michigan

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Ocean swimming can be dangerous, and many beaches have lifeguards at the ready. But that's not the case for most beaches along the Great Lakes, some of which have treacherous riptides. So this year, one city in Michigan is getting creative with its water rescues. From Interlochen Public Radio, Dan Wanschura reports.

DAN WANSCHURA, BYLINE: I'm on the pier at South Haven, which sits right on the shores of Lake Michigan.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES SPLASHING)

WANSCHURA: The city has two main public beaches and a popular lighthouse, an idyllic setting that attracts tens of thousands of tourists every summer. But swimming here can be dangerous because of rip currents and strong waves, and swimmers who are unfamiliar with them can get in trouble.

ZACHARY KENREICH: It's the out-of-town people who come here on vacation and things like that that we need to work on educating.

WANSCHURA: Zachary Kenreich is a paramedic with South Haven Area Emergency Services. Last year, his team responded to 23 water rescues on Lake Michigan. Three people drowned. That's when Kenreich started brainstorming on ways his department could cut down on its response time for people struggling in the water. And what he came up with was this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE BUZZING)

WANSCHURA: Thanks to a $7,500 grant, the department was able to buy a special drone outfitted with some unique features. It's about the size of a Frisbee and is equipped with a camera. Dangling from the center of it is a small, folded-up flotation device, which can be released remotely by the drone operator.

KENREICH: And I can drop it like that.

WANSCHURA: Once it hits the water, a CO2 canister automatically inflates into a 3-foot-by-6-inch yellow flotation tube, big enough to support an adult. Drones dropping inflatables have been popular in Australia for a few years now. And this year, some beaches in California and Florida are also starting to deploy them.

KENREICH: We have tested it multiple times. It's been working very well for us. And this doesn't change anything that we do normally.

WANSCHURA: But not everyone is gung-ho about using these drones. Dave Benjamin heads the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a water safety nonprofit group.

DAVE BENJAMIN: This inflatable device would almost literally have to be dropped on their head or in their hands.

WANSCHURA: If it's not, the victim might not be able to reach the flotation device, or waves could carry it to shore without them. Still, in South Haven, it normally takes emergency responders around eight minutes to get from the station to the beach and then to the victim in the water. That's pretty quick, but sometimes every second counts, and the drone can get help to the swimmer faster. It can fly up to 40 miles per hour and can reach a victim about three minutes quicker. Last year, there were 56 drownings in Lake Michigan, the most on record.

B J FISHER: But it is a quick way to get a flotation device out to a victim. And it's very important that that is done as quickly as possible.

WANSCHURA: B.J. Fisher is the director of health and safety at the American Lifeguard Association. He says integrating more technology into these rescue operations is a good thing, but installing more lifeguards at beaches would still be the best option. But that's a challenge for tourist cities like South Haven, which face staffing shortages and have liability concerns about using lifeguards.

FISHER: It won't solve the problem, but it's better than nothing.

WANSCHURA: With July right around the corner, more and more people are going to be getting in the Great Lakes. For the emergency services team here in South Haven, they hope this new drone means fun days at the beach won't turn tragic.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Wanschura.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUIET LIFE SONG, "RECORD TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.