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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.

Clark Street Beach

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.

Sparse crowd

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.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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  1. I hope the powers that be take this opportunity to review and improve their testing procedures. It would be a tragedy for a Good Samaritan like this to be a victim of their own selfless impulses.

  2. Ms. Cusack’s ordeal nullifies the lifeguards’ efforts to provide a high level of training and increased public safety, by discouraging her and others from enjoying the beach. Public service is hard work in part because it is a balancing act, and I’m glad an audit is being undertaken. Thank you, Ms. Cusack for sharing your experience, and helping to make the beach a place of not only safety, but enjoyment.

  3. In a world where too many people witness traumatic events and respond by filming them, I applaud Cusack for getting involved. It was brave of her to physically rush forward while wanting to retreat mentally and emotionally. If you’re going to conduct a drill in public, you have a responsibility to the public. Simple as that.

  4. It must have been so horrible to think someone is downing and you don’t feel you are in a place to save them and/or die in the process. That would have been traumatizing for me.
    There is no reason why a drill can’t be constructed in a manor that
    make sure people on the beach know what is happening and the training of future lifeguards is secured. It just takes some creative thinking to design it and communicate it.

  5. It may be worthwhile to see if or come up with another test. If you need to keep the current test I would think there may need to be more lifeguards involved, maybe some near the site of the staged drowning to warn away good samaritans that may suffer emotional or even physical trauma in an attempt to intervene.

  6. I was a certified lifeguard as a teen on the coast of New England and one of the first things we were taught was that a person can drown in a bowl of water. The public should absolutely be informed of any drills. This could have caused actual harm to a good samaritan like Ms. Cusack and for sure was traumatic for her son and any other children who witnessed it.

  7. One can fully appreciate the purpose of a drill…to “keep lifeguards on their toes” and to save lives. However, one must weigh the pros and cons of how such a litmus test impacts swimmers in the vicinity of the drill. If I were present during such a drill and did not hear the announcement via the microphone…my reaction would most certainly have been similar to Ms. Cusack’s. What if we can’t hear the announcement and we risk our own family whether in the water or on the shore…to help a swimmer appearing to be in distress? Someone with a heart condition or a hearing impaired person could suffer the consequences. Save the drills for a contained environment and let locals/visitors enjoy their beach experience. After all, a vacation or a day at the beach should be relaxing, as a positive…and most of all make us feel safe with the lifeguards already on point. It should never be a catalyst for what could be a heart attack or any sort of panic for the beachgoer. If locals make a “habit” of visiting this spot…they have likely seen or heard of a drill before – which is not the best metric for success (regarding the impact on others)…and as for shallow water – people can drown there too. Hasn’t tourism suffered enough during this pandemic without adding to our stress? Kudos to city officials for taking a closer glance at this procedure…and thanks to this forum for bringing it to the public’s attention.

  8. Having seen people nearly drown before I can say the experience is no joke. We’re smart enough to figure out how to give those protecting us every advantage without putting folks through such an experience unnecessarily.

  9. One would think the drill could be better organized. If you have one person who is acting like they are drowning you can have twenty additional actors or team members to participate. If you want the element of surprise then arbitrarily reassign life guards to other stations and beaches. To include the public, and not know how they will react is careless. Imagine in this case that there is a panic and someone thinks shark, or someone tries to be a good samaritan and gets hurt trying to assist. Poor planning, and poor execution all around. Firemen don’t include the public in putting out fires. Police don’t include the public in gun scenarios. They all use a controlled environment. Perhaps the Lifeguard association should do the same.

  10. I think I was there on the same day Ms. Cusack had this experience, if it was the 11th- I habitually go to the Clark beach on Monday’s out of a force of habit from when that was the only free day at the beaches.
    Maybe I saw a second fake drowning drill but I would be surprised if that was the case. I distinctly remember there being an announcement on a bullhorn shortly after the loud whistle. I remember it because the guy said not to call 911 and I looked up because I didn’t think there was anything 911 worthy happening, and that’s when I saw the guard moving in the water.
    This is the other part I’m confused about: the person the guard was going for was in relatively shallow water. I saw another person standing about 5 feet away, this person may have been Ms. Cusack based on her comments, also standing, at no point did I see anyone totally submerged. The thing about Clark that I love/hate, is that most of the allowed area for swimming is incredibly shallow. Some days, it is more like a splash pad than a lake beach. On that Monday, it was shallow in the swimming zone. I genuinely do not understand how the supposed fake victim, or Ms. Cusack for that matter, could have possibly been at risk of going under.
    I hold no strong opinion on how they should do these things going forward, I visit the beaches in Evanston purely because it takes less time than going up to Gilson or down to Loyola park, all I’m saying is that as someone who was there, this sounds remarkably different from what I experienced.