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'Safety is everyone's individual responsibility': Officials discuss water safety following recent drownings

Scott Zitzloff, a deputy with the Washington County Sheriff's Office, looks for safety hazards like intoxicated boating, lack of lifejackets and high speeds in no-wake zones while he patrols the county's lakes and rivers. Maureen McMullen / RiverTown Multimedia. 1 / 3
Washington County Sheriff's Deputy Scott Zitzloff patrols a popular boating and swimming area along the St. Croix River. Tasked with responding to emergencies on bodies of water throughout the county, the Sheriff's office recruits at least 60 additional employees to help enforce water safety in the summer. Maureen McMullen / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 3
The City of Woodbury opted in 2009 to remove lifeguards from Carver Park swimming beach, where at least four signs now warn beachgoers to swim at their own risk. Maureen McMullen / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 3

About a half-dozen "NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY" signs greet beachgoers from the parking lot to the swimming beach at Carver Lake Park.

Woodbury Parks and Recreation Director Bob Klatt said the signs are among the city's efforts to prevent tragedies like the death of Kendrick Jordan, Jr., the 5-year-old St. Paul Park boy who drowned in the lake July 8.

Woodbury is among a growing number of Minnesota cities to eliminate lifeguards from public beaches, a trend that started in the early 2000s. Woodbury opted to eliminate the beach's lifeguards nearly a decade ago to reduce costs and cut admission fees. Klatt called the move a "change in philosophy" from when the city initially assumed jurisdiction over the beach.

"We've taken a lot of steps to open up the beach to make it more inviting and accessible," he said. "Fencing has been eliminated, so all the controls we have in place when we were charging for the facility are no longer in place. What we'd done is really go the route of having it completely open to the public."

Klatt said it is unlikely that the city will opt to add lifeguards following the drowning.

"Safety is everyone's individual responsibility when they're on the water," he said. "Water can be very dangerous, and there are lots of guidelines and lots of recommendations on what to do when you're on the water."

Washington County is likely to follow suit.

"Part of the challenge is getting lifeguards in the summer," said Wayne Sandberg, Washington County's deputy public works director.

The county operates five beaches, and about half have lifeguards at certain hours of the day.

As the summer winds down, Sandberg said the county is starting to scale back its number of active lifeguards. In cases when only one trained guard is available, they'll take on monitoring duties but won't necessarily engage with swimmers or call for swim breaks.

Mark Kinde, program director with the Minnesota Department of Health Injury and Violence Prevention Unit, said lakes and rivers harbor unique risks for young or inexperienced swimmers.

Public beaches typically post floating markers to indicate where people can safely swim, but water erosion can cause shifts in the lakebed throughout the year, causing sudden dropoffs.

When a swimmer unknowingly steps off a dropoff, Kinde said the sudden submersion triggers a reflex to gasp for air, which fills the lungs with water.

The whole process can occur in less than 30 seconds.

"Rarely is there the shouting or loud noise," Kinde said. "The instinctive reflex when we're drowning is that we want air, and when we try to take in air, there's not room for a shout for help. When you get to a desperate point, you'll open your mouth to breath and you drown quickly there."

Because these types of drownings can be difficult to spot, Kinde said lifeguards are trained to keep track of swimmers by visually scanning the water in an "ever-roving" method.

They also offer an elevated view of the water, which helps them see under the water's surface.

Although he said he strongly supports lifeguards on all public waters, Kinde drew parallels between lifeguards and roadway safety features like rumble strips and barriers: civil engineers, vehicle manufacturers and motorists, he said, each share a responsibility for highway safety.

"Cities counties are wrestling with how to deploy budgets," he said. "Lifeguards are a wise investment form the part of the community to offer that for their lakes... but each community has to make their own determination of how this fits in their own budget."


Kendrick Jordan was the second child to drown at a swimming beach in Washington County this year.

Ghia Vue, a 6-year-old St. Paul girl, drowned in early June at the Lake Elmo Swim Pond, a manmade beach regularly staffed by lifeguards.

Ken Xiong, a 27-year-old Woodbury resident, drowned after his canoe capsized on Lake Jane later that month, raising Washington's County's total drownings to three so far in 2017.

Across the St. Croix River, 19-year-old St. Paul resident Jeffrey Arkis Taylor had been underwater for about one hour before first responders recovered his body from the river near a Hudson swimming beach earlier this summer. He was declared dead at the hospital.

An average of 48 people drowned in Minnesota each year between 2007 and 2015, according to state Department of Natural Resources' drowning and boating fatality records.

Washington County, an area dotted with lakes and wedged between the intersecting St. Croix and Mississippi rivers, averaged just under two drownings per year during that time.

Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry, whose office is responsible for aquatic emergency responses, said the department prioritizes water safety education as a preventative measure against drowning.

Among the most effective way to prevent swimming tragedies, he said, are lifejackets. Starry recommends children — and even adults with minimal swimming experience — wear inflatable life vests while swimming.

"If you're someone that cannot swim that well or even those that may swim, especially in the river, there are times that those devices are needed," he said. "They may be uncomfortable, and may not look pretty, but it's something that's needed."

Scott Zitzloff, a deputy with Starry's office, said the devices play an especially crucial role in boating accidents, during which even competent swimmers can be injured or knocked unconscious.

About 60 to 70 seasonal sheriff's office employees, along with deputies like Zitzloff, patrol the county's waters and respond to emergencies like potential drownings.

Although he said rescue and medical teams can often revive the victims they pull out of the water, the most difficult challenge is determining how long someone has been underwater.

Bystanders, he said, can assist in rescues by observing where they last saw a potential drowning victim.

"If you see someone struggling and go underwater, remember where you were standing, or better yet, don't move," he said. "Pick a spot on the other side of the water as a marker where they went under."

A St. Paul man pulled Jordan Kendrick from the water the day the 5-year-old drowned in Carver Lake, the Pioneer Press reported after the child's death.

Fellow beachgoers were instructed to form a human chain to rescue the boy. Starry said the method is effective as long as those linking arms are strong swimmers themselves.

"First and foremost, they have to dial 911 and make sure the authorities are responding," he said. "Secondly, make sure that if they can get a group of people together, that does not endanger more people. The chain that we saw, whether it's out in the ocean or in the lake, those type of measures to work. But they have to make sure that other people are not at risk as well."