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Evanston lakefront officials test lifeguards’ alertness as many as a half dozen times a week with impromptu mock-drowning drills.
But one of those drills came across as a little too real for an out-of-town visitor on July 11. Thinking someone was in fact drowning, she advanced well out into the water before learning it was a drill.
Evanston officials said they would look at ways to step up education to the public that the drills may take place, after the RoundTable shared with them July 14 the woman’s story.
LaFern Cusack, an actress and producer of Dr. Phil McGraw’s “Phil in the Blanks” podcast, was in town from California with her husband and their young son, David, helping her mother-in-law move apartments at The Mather senior living residence. That afternoon, Cusack, seeking to provide her son with a break, walked with him a few blocks to the Clark Street Beach, she said.
Unlike the previous day, when the beach was crowded, she said, there were maybe 20 people there, mostly young people, many of them playing volleyball.
The two spent some time in the water playing together, she related in a July 14 phone interview. “And then all of a sudden I heard the lifeguard’s whistle,” she said. “And I’m looking at my son, and he’s in front of me in the water about 50 feet from the buoy, and the buoy is in back of me. … The lifeguard jumps off and starts swimming in the water, and I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’
“I hear splashing behind me and I turned around, and I see this young girl going up and down in the water, and then underneath.” Cusack said she thought, “This girl is drowning!”
Two men to her left were “just staring at her … and I start running towards her. And I’m trying to calm her down, because it was like, it was as if she was frantic…I mean it looked like she was drowning. And I was so scared, because I knew I’m not a strong swimmer.”
‘I’m a lifeguard!’
Cusack said she yelled to the woman in distress as she was running in the water toward her: “’It’s OK, you’re going to be OK.’ And I’m like, if I grab her, I know for a fact I’m going to go under, because she’s much taller than my son, and when I’ve tried to help my son out of the water sometimes I go under. But then I was like … the good thing is, the lifeguard is coming, and maybe the lifeguard will grab me, so I don’t, like, die.
“I was literally shaking, and [the “drowning” woman] looks up and says, ‘I’m a lifeguard. I’m a lifeguard.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ She goes, ‘I’m a lifeguard,’ and I just automatically turned around, looked for my son behind me, went to my son, and then I started crying because, you know, it was just so scary. And then I looked to my left to another lifeguard [who said], ‘Oh, thanks.’
“And then I turned to the guys [next to her in the water], and I [asked], ‘Did you know they were doing drills?’ And one said, ‘No, I didn’t know what was going on.’
“I was like, ‘This is crazy.’ And then I turned back to my son. And he goes, ‘Mom, why are you so scared? It wasn’t that scary.’”
Even later she was still agitated, and she woke up in tears in the middle of the night. “You know, you see all those shows of people going into the water, trying to help someone and they end up dying. … they need to at least notify the people around them that they’re doing drills, because that was not cool.”
The next day Cusack said she tried to reach someone at the city by going online but that led her to contact the RoundTable.
Tests maintain lifeguards’ skills
Both Audrey Thompson, the city’s Parks and Recreation Director, and Tim Carter, the city’s Lakefront Manager, expressed concern about Cusack’s experience. Thompson asked for an audit of the incident to make sure lakefront personnel are “doing what they are supposed to do.”
Carter, like Thompson, in his position only since April, confirmed that a mock drowning drill was held some time around 3:45 p.m. July 14 at Clark Street Beach.
The lifeguard did pass the drill, he said, recognizing the swimmer in distress in the water within 15 seconds and then responding to the emergency within 30 seconds, “which is [within] our protocol.”
Carter said, to his knowledge, this is the first time the city has received a complaint about the practice. The drills are in line with an industry standard, applying to lakefronts, aquatic pools and water parks, he said. “They perform these what some people call audits or mock drownings, to keep lifeguards essentially on their toes,” he said.
The drills are “how we keep our lifeguards engaged and you know, on top of their skills,” he said. “It’s a test – that’s really what it is, a test. And if the lifeguard fails this test, then we pull them down, and there’s retraining. If they fail the test again, then they look at disciplinary action, either through a suspension or termination. You know, lakefront safety, we take it very seriously.”
Should beachgoers be warned?
Alerting people ahead of time, he said, could defeat the purpose, as “our lifeguards would obviously know ahead of time that a potential test is going to be happening.”
Still, in Cusack’s case, he said, “I recognize how it could be alarming.” In such instances, he said, “We try to make that contact with our guests through a megaphone immediately after the lifeguard recognizes that something is going on. So if a lifeguard sees that someone is a distressed swimmer, the lifeguard whistles – the whistle is a communication tool to notify the other lifeguards that there is something going on on the beach.”
The communication then makes its way to the beach manager. “If something really was going on, we would clear the water immediately and secure the scene,” Carter said.
“But in this case, where it’s a mock drowning, we go on the microphone and just reassure people through the microphone. And, you know, if there’s a lot of people on the beach, it might be kinda hard to hear the microphone. We do the best we can.”
Cusack said she was not aware of any announcement or protocol. “We were also there the day before, and there were so many people going beyond the buoy that the lifeguards kept blowing their whistles,” she said.
But on July 11, “it was a quiet day, with less than 20 people in the lake.”
Cusack said her main concern was that others not go through what she did and be placed in harm’s way. “I think that they need to inform people in the water that we are conducting a drill,” she said.