Deciding whether to hire lifeguards to patrol the beach at Twin Lakes Park won’t be easy. Thanks to the bizarre state of liability law, having lifeguards at the beach may actually increase, not decrease, Grand Traverse County’s liability, but cannot ensure the beach will be safe.
That debate, however, must not prevent the county from taking every other necessary step to halt the string of drownings there.
Three young men have lost their lives at Twin Lakes since 2010. Nicholas Lawrence Wayne Cooper, 17, of Maple City, drowned that year while trying to swim from the main beach to a nearby beach. Daniel Edward Doherty, 19, of Traverse City drowned in 2011 while searching for rocks in the lake. Owen Williamson, a Traverse City West Senior High School junior, drowned May 31 while at the park with friends. They said he had been wading in chest-deep water.
The county’s Parks & Recreation Commission has approved a number of safety measures, including installation of a temporary, roped-off swimming area and two life rings with 50 feet of rope. The county is researching the cost of installing an emergency phone and preparing new signs.
Despite some back-and-forth over how close a drop-off is to the beach, new signs must include a warning about the drop-off and the roped-off area must clearly mark where the drop-off is. The county needs to map out where the drop-off is and how deep the water is so everyone knows the situation.
Signs must also warn that the water may be colder than swimmers expect; two recent drownings elsewhere in the county involved what is called dry-water drownings in which sudden immersion in cold water causes a reflex response called “laryngospasm” that closes off the airway.
Any conversation about posting lifeguards at the beach must take into consideration the awful reality that under the way liability laws have been interpreted, the presence of a lifeguard may somehow reduce an individual’s responsibility for his or her own life while increasing the county’s liability. It’s absurd, but it’s a reality the county can’t ignore.
Posting lifeguards there also opens the county to questions about why it doesn’t have lifeguards at every other county beach. It’s a legal nightmare waiting to happen.
But the county cannot back off any of the other steps it has taken at Twin Lakes, and should consider ropes, buoys and signs at every beach it oversees.
The tragedies there must stop; right now, that’s the county’s job.