Michigan Enhances Great Lakes Beach Safety with Double Red Flag Warning System


Visitors at state-designated swim beaches along the Great Lakes in Michigan state parks should be aware of double red flag warnings, which mean do not enter the water. Photo courtesy MDNR.

Summer is upon us, and many of us will be visiting the Great Lakes of our state.

To prioritize safety at Michigan state parks, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has announced that the double red warning flags are now fully operational on state-designated swim beaches across the Great Lakes. The new flag warning system is intended to raise awareness of changing conditions at Great Lakes beaches and potentially save lives.

This is an evolution of the Great Lakes flag warning system that began last year, a move instigated by escalating concerns over accidents and drownings on the Great Lakes. "We actively reevaluate our safety measures and public education efforts, especially when it comes to Great Lakes safety," said Ron Olson, DNR Parks and Recreation chief.

He added that there's a common misconception about the dangers associated with the Great Lakes. Even the most seasoned swimmers can quickly find themselves in life-threatening situations and be swept away. Citing the 1,170 drownings since 2010, with 108 in 2022 alone, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, Olson stressed the necessity of this initiative.

Visitors will be prohibited from entering the water when double red flags are hoisted. Other closures and restrictions will be communicated through park signage or direct communication from DNR parks or law enforcement staff. The updated flag warning system is designed to provide real-time updates about current water conditions and environmental warnings.

DNR Land Use Order 5.1.6 makes it unlawful to enter the water from a state-designated swim beach when human health and safety are at risk. This could be due to severe weather events, hazardous waves, dangerous water conditions, active rescue or recovery efforts, and environmental hazards.

Pat Whalen, the district supervisor for the DNR Parks and Recreation Division, has implored all visitors to the Great Lakes beaches to familiarize themselves with the meaning of the flags and adhere to the guidance at all times. "We began introducing double red flags at some state-designated swim beaches in 2022,” he said. "This year, all equipment is in place, and the new flag warning system has been rolled out to all state-designated swim beaches along the Great Lakes in nearly 30 state parks."

The new flag warning system is outlined as follows (Think of the traffic light system):

  • Double red flag: Water access is closed due to dangerous conditions.
  • Red flag: High hazard due to high surf and/or strong currents. Advised to stay on the beach.
  • Yellow flag: Medium hazard. Be cautious of moderate surf, currents, and high waves.
  • Green flag: Low hazard. It's safe to enter the water but exercise caution.

These state-designated swim beaches are marked with swim buoys, lifesaving flotation devices, and equipment and have a water depth of less than 5 feet at the time of buoy installation. It's worth noting that the double red flag restriction does not apply to those engaged in board sports like surfing, kite surfing, and skimboarding, provided they use appropriate safety gear.

Keep these other cautions in mind when enjoying time in and around the Great Lakes:

  • State parks have no beach guards, so never swim alone, always keep close watch of children and bring U.S. Coast-Guard-approved life jackets, especially for new and inexperienced swimmers.
  • Water currents near piers, break walls, and the outlets of rivers can be extremely hazardous.
  • Visitors in areas without designated swim beaches should use extreme caution because they will not benefit from the beach flag warning system or the visual cautions of buoys that mark water depth and obstacles.
  • Before leaving home for any beach outing, check local weather reports and lake conditions and learn about the types of Great Lakes currents and how to escape them.

Visit Michigan.gov/BeachSafety for tips and information on safely visiting the Great Lakes, including state-designated swim beach locations, the beach flag warning system, Great Lakes currents (and how to escape them), and more.

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