MICHIGAN CITY – In 2023, a bill authored by a local legislator to mandate life rings on all Lake Michigan beaches never made it to the floor of the Indiana Senate. But he's trying again, and will have a lot of backup for its first hearing.

"One of the bills that I authored, Senate Bill 253, will be heard on Monday morning at 10 a.m. in the Natural Resources Committee," state Sen. Rodney Pol, D-Chesterton, said.

"My bill will provide life-saving equipment available for all of our beach visitors and public safety servants around Lake Michigan. We have seen too many tragedies on our beaches for too long. Please contact the members of the Natural Resources Committee in the Senate and encourage them to vote yes."

Last year, the Lake Michigan Rescue Equipment Bill did not receive a hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee – killing it for the legislative session. Though the bill, sponsored by Pol, won unanimous approval in the Senate, House Natural Resources Committee Chair Shane Lindauer, R-Jasper, did not allow it to be heard.

On Monday, when the bill gets its first hearing, the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, and family and friends of Indiana’s Lake Michigan drowning victims, will be heading to the Statehouse to testify in support.

The bill would require Life Ring Stations on piers and at public access points on Lake Michigan.

Among those testifying will be:

  • Dave Benjamin, 2010 drowning survivor and co-founder of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project
  • Greg Froese, father of Chase Froese, 20, who drowned in 2015
  • Lowell Black, Chesterton Fire Department chaplain, who has consoled family and friends of drowning victims during and after recovery incidents

In addition, written statements will be delivered from:

  • Evelyn Hernandez, drowning survivor and girlfriend of Leonel Dominguez, 31, who drowned in 2012
  • Lynn Jaynes, friend of Thomas Kenning, 38, who drowned attempting to rescue a teenage girl
  • Carol Sandy, mother of Jacob Sandy, who drowned while kayaking in 2019

Since 2011, Benjamin has been operating the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. He also serves on multiple water safety task forces in Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, and has presented at regional and national water safety conferences.

Benjamin survived a Lake Michigan drowning incident, then dedicated his life to water safety. He said he will be sharing personal stories of rescues, drowning CPR, their work with family members of drowning victims, and the financial cost-effective benefits of implementing commonly accepted water safety best practices, including life rings.

In 2020, Benjamin received the National Drowning Prevention Alliance’s “Lifesaver of the Year” award, and Pratt received the same award in 2012.

In Hernandez’ statement, she described her 2012 drowning incident with her boyfriend. They were on an inflatable raft that was blown offshore by strong winds. When the raft capsized, bystanders on the beach saw their struggles, but there was no safety equipment to assist. A bystander eventually swum out to them, but Leonel had submerged, and Evelyn was the only survivor.

Since then, Hernandez has been a water safety supporter and advocate with the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. She founded the “Lake Michigan Waterfront Safety Initiative – Indiana” in late 2022, which consists of family members of Indiana’s Lake Michigan drowning victims.

In Jaynes' statement, he described the impact of the loss of his friend. In June 2022, Kenning was at Porter Beach and saw a young woman who was struggling against the strong wind, currents and 3-5-foot waves. There was no rescue equipment so he rushed in the water to save her. The girl was rescued, but Kenning slipped under the water and did not survive.

Benjamin said SB 424, which died last year, would have required safety stations. It would have gone into effect July 1 and required a minimum of 100 stations — each including a life ring, weather-proof case and durable rope about 100 feet in length.

“People need to understand, drowning is a public health issue,” Benjamin said. “Stuff like this should be mandated and required. There shouldn’t be resistance.”

Members of the Lake Michigan Water Front Safety Initiative–Indiana testified on behalf of the bill, which led the Senate Committee on Natural Resources to unanimously pass it. The House Committee did not vote, despite strong bipartisan support.

In June 2022, Illinois was the first Great Lakes State to pass a Lake Michigan Rescue Equipment Act, and Pol's current bill mirrors that law. It will require all private and government-owned piers, drop-offs, and public access points to be equipped with rescue gear.

Just days after Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed that law, a life was saved at North Avenue Beach in Chicago, Benjamin said.

"A person on the lakefront saw someone struggling in the water. They stayed dry. They grabbed a life ring. They threw it in. They helped pull the person out. They saved a life. They put the life ring back, and then everyone went on with their day."

By the time first responders arrived, everyone was safely out of the water, exactly as the bill envisioned.

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