Port urged to relaunch water safety initiative

Former committee member calls on officials to re-establish group that worked to prevent Lake Michigan drownings

PORT WASHINGTON’S SOUTH BEACH, which was busy on this June day, was one of the focuses of the city’s Waterfront Safety Committee and has an INFOS rip current warning system at its entrance. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

The drowning of two children and the near-drowning of a teenager off southern Lake Michigan beaches on the same day last month should serve as a wake up call for Port Washington, said a former member of the defunct Waterfront Safety Committee who is now calling on officials to revive the city’s lakefront safety initiative.

The first step, Beckie Perez said, should be to re-establish that committee, which was formed by then-Mayor Tom Mlada a month after 15-year-old Tyler Buczek of Port Washington drowned while swimming with friends off the city’s north beach on Sept. 2, 2012.

“No one thinks about this until there’s a tragedy or a near miss,” Perez, who was a member of the committee from its inception, said this week. “But years go by and we get complacent. 

“It keeps me up at night.”

The committee championed the cause of waterfront safety and raised more than $100,000 in donations that ranged from beer garden tips to grants worth thousands of dollars to further its mission.

It was responsible for the installation of life rings on the city’s north and south beaches, the breakwater and in Coal Dock park, as well as the placement of large signs at the entrance to the beaches warning of the danger of strong Lake Michigan currents.

Perhaps its crowing achievement was the installation of the cutting-edge Integrated Nowcast/Forecast Operation System, or INFOS, at entrances to both of the city’s beaches. 

In place in Port Washington since 2015, the INFOS system was developed by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Chin Wu and uses data from wave sensors off the beaches and other sources to detect rip currents and provides information about beach conditions.

Three lights at the beaches — green, yellow and red — indicate whether the risk of rip currents is low, if they are possible or if they are likely, and a computer kiosk at the base of the lights provides real-time information about the conditions. The system is also accessible via an app and the website www.infosportwashington.cee.wisc.edu.

The systems, each of which cost about $60,000, were paid for with grants and donations.

“We were truly a grass-roots operation, and we got a lot done,” Perez said of the committee. 

But Mlada left office in 2018 and moved out of the city. And in March 2020, one of the committee’s most active members, Ald. Kevin Rudser, died.

“And then there was the pandemic,” said Port Washington Recreation Director Kiley Schulte, whose department has assumed responsibility for maintaining some of the life rings and the installation of the INFOS systems.

While much of the infrastructure remains in place, a key component of the waterfront safety initiative — education — disappeared along with the committee.

Shortly after its creation, the Waterfront Safety Committee developed a relationship with the nonprofit organization Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, founded in 2010 by retired firefighter Bob Pratt and Dave Benjamin, who dedicated himself to water safety education after nearly drowning while surfing in Lake Michigan. 

The committee paid to have the organization present regular water safety programs for Port Washington-Saukville School District students and hold programs for the community that featured classroom instruction followed by in-the-water training off north beach.

“The first time we did it at the high school, more than 500 students attended, and it was optional for them,” Perez said. 

In an interview Tuesday, Benjamin, cofounder and executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, said waterfront safety education is critical to preventing drownings.

Benjamin said he starts each of his sessions with a survey, and while 95% of students report they can swim, only 5% said they are familiar with strategies to prevent them from drowning. 

“Drowning is a public health issue, but it’s not treated or funded like a public health issue,” Benjamin said, noting it has been identified as such by the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. “It’s a public health issue that gets very little attention, and the No. 1 component of addressing it is education.

“Every year, schools have fire drills, tornado drills, active shooter drills, even earthquake drills in some places, yet the truth is children in the United States are more likely to drown than they are to die from all those other things combined.” 
Perez said education should be a key focus of a new committee, but now it’s time for the School District to pay for annual waterfront safety instruction.

“The school should be funding a program that our committee had to sell beer (at beer garden events) to pay for in the past,” she said. “It’s something the school should fund every spring, and it should start next spring.

“Let’s face it, all these children are going to flock to the beach at some point, so how can the School District not spend $1,000 a year to teach them how to be safe when they’re there.”

Mayor Ted Neitzke, who was elected in April, said he was unfamiliar with the Waterfront Safety Committee but that it seems like a good idea to reinstate it. 

“It sounds important to me and I certainly will review it,” he said. “Unfortunately, it sometimes take a traumatic event to remind us of our priorities. We should probably get to work on this before something tragic happens.”

Schulte said the city needs a waterfront safety committee, noting that while the programs her department offers go beyond just pool safety they do not delve into lakefront safety.

“What makes our community special is that we have Lake Michigan, but with that comes some dangers and the need for continuing waterfront safety education,” she said. “Another committee would be very welcomed.”

The statistics support the need for waterfront safety measures. Last year, there were 108 drownings on the Great Lakes, 56 of which were on Lake Michigan, making it the deadliest year on record, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. So far this year, there have been more than 30 Great Lakes drownings, 13 of which have been on Lake Michigan.

That’s why Perez said she won’t take no for an answer in her effort to re-establish a waterfront safety committee.

“I’ve worked too many years on this to just let it go and say, ‘Good luck,’” she said. “Believe me, I’m going to see this through.”


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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