Port panel formed after teenager drowned plans educational initiative ahead of waterfront safety improvements
A committee created by a city mourning the Labor Day weekend drowning of Port Washington teenager Tyler Buczek will
launch a water safety education campaign next month ahead of a series of beach safety measures intended to prevent a repeat
of the tragedy that broke the collective heart of the community.
The Port Washington Waterfront Safety Advisory Committee in conjunction with the Greater Port Washington Kiwanis Club is
organizing a program to be presented by the nonprofit Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April
17, at the Port Washington-Saukville School District Aquatic Center at Thomas Jefferson Middle School.
“I’m praying the entire middle school and high school show up for this program because these are the kids who are going to the beach and this is the type of education that saves lives,” committee member Beckie Perez said.
The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project is scheduled to return to Port Washington Sunday, June 23, to conduct a three-hour seminar, half of which will be conducted at the city’s north beach, Perez said.
“I’ll spearhead this every single year,” she said. “That’s how important this is.”
The committee is also propossing a series of safety improvements at the city’s two Lake Michigan beaches ranging from rip current informational signs that could be in place later this month to multiple life rings on throw ropes along the north beach and north breakwater, as well as one near the entrance to the south beach, committee member Kevin Rudser said.
Plans eventually call for the installation of emergency call boxes and video cameras on the beach, as well as an electronic
sign that would warn of hazardous lake conditions, he said.
“We’ve been working through the winter knowing that by spring, it won’t be long before people are on the beach,” Rudser
said. “The more we can educate people and prepare them for things that could happen, the better chance we have at preventing
The committee was formed in October, just more than a month after Tyler, 15, was washed away in the Lake Michigan surf off
Port Washington’s north beach and drowned on Sunday, Sept. 2. He had been playing with friends on a sandbar on a beautiful
later summer day.
The teenager, who graduated from Thomas Jefferson Middle School at the top of his class and was determined to become an
engineer, died just two days before he was to start his freshman year at Port Washington High School.
“After Tyler drowned, a lot of us realized we don’t understand or appreciate the enormity and power of Lake Michigan,” Perez
said. “I don’t ever want to hear any child say he or she is afraid of drowning, but they need to learn to respect the lake so it can be
Shortly after the committee began its work, members came across an article in the trade magazine Industrial Safety & Hygiene
News written by Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project Executive Director Dave Benjamin and lead instructor Bob Pratt, a retired East
Lansing, Mich., paramedic and firefighter who is a certified lifeguard, CPR and first aid instructor.
“We took one look at the article and thought, ‘This is it. This is what we need to do,’” Perez said.
The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project was formed in late 2010 in response to an alarming number — 253 — of drownings in
the Great Lakes during the last three years. Since 2011, the organization has taught nearly two dozen surf rescue classes,
primarily in Lake Michigan communities in Michigan and Indiana.
Benjamin, who became involved in water safety instruction after nearly drowning while surfing in 2010, and Pratt were teaching
a course in Sheboygan on the day Tyler drowned. It was the same day a 60-year-old man died in Sheboygan while trying to save
his grandson, who washed off shore but ultimately was saved.
“When a community has a drowning, they look at what they can do and they usually find us,” Benjamin said. “It’s unfortunate
that it takes a tragedy, but the important thing is that communities are taking action to help prevent this from happening again.”
The organization teaches people how to rescue others and save themselves in open water surf conditions using the Flip, Float
and Follow dangerous current survival strategy.
“Surf rescue is a last resort,” Benjamin said. “We’re not encouraging people to go jumping in the water trying to rescue people
but the fact is, they’re going to do it anyway, and they have no idea what they’re getting into.”
Developed by the Michigan Sea Grant, Flip, Float and Follow is a strategy similar to the Stop, Drop and Roll fire survival
strategy children are routinely taught. It will be the focus of the April 17 program at the Aquatic Center, and will be part of the
Kiwanis Club’s Week of the Young Child program.
Although the club’s Week of the Young Child is typically geared toward kids between the ages of 4 and 9, the surf rescue
program is open to people of all ages and will be of particular value to middle and high school-age youths because they are the
ones most likely to frequent beaches without adult supervision, said Perez, who is also a Kiwanis Club member.
The program is free, thanks to the support of Kiwanis and other civic organizations, Perez said. Organizers are not taking
registrations and said they will accommodate as many people as possible in the Aquatic Center viewing area and around the
“When the Kiwanis Club learned about this program, the light just kind of went on,” Perez said. “We knew we couldn’t miss an
opportunity like this.”
The Flip, Float and Follow strategy teaches basic, sound survival advice — when in trouble in the water, flip onto your back,
float to avoid exhaustion and follow the current until you determine what direction it is pushing you. You then have the option of
swimming perpendicular to it or, if not strong enough, continue floating until help arrives.
“It addition to advice, it’s an important ordered task that prevents panic,” Benjamin said. “You can tell people not to panic, but
that doesn’t do much to stop them from panicking. If you give them a task to accomplish, however, they focus on that and not
“I have swam in Lake Michigan for 43 years, but when I got separated from my surf board (in 2010), I was in trouble. Panic is
panic, and I had resigned myself to the fact I wasn’t coming home. That’s when I realized I was exhibiting the signs of drowning,
so I calmed down and starting floating. It took me 40 minutes, but I finally made it to shore.”
The June 23 program will be a combination of classroom instruction and demonstration and practice at the beach.
In addition to Flip, Float and Follow, the surf rescue program teaches participants to recognize dangerous lake conditions and
different types of currents, the signs of drowning and beach hazards, Benjamin said.
By the time the beach class is taught, rip current educational signs provided at no cost by Wisconsin Sea Grant will be in place
at the city’s two beaches, Rudser said. The committee then wants to work as quickly as possible to complete the rest of the
beach safety improvement, he said.
Ultimately, the committee wants to create emergency stations on the beach that, in addition to life rings and throw ropes, would
include video cameras and call boxes that would provide a direct line to 911.
The cameras, which could be accessed via the internet, would provide live coverage of the beach and lake so people could
see the conditions.
Law enforcement agencies would have a direct link to the cameras and a warning system would alert emergency responders
when a life ring is removed from its bracket. That would allow them to instantly see where the emergency is rather than have to
rely solely on often-panicked witnesses, Rudser said. The cameras and life ring alert system would also deter vandals, he said.
The life rings would be checked regularly by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and marina staff, he said.
“So many people think the lake is without danger. The fact is, it’s a big, powerful body of water,” Rudser said. “Our goal is
certainly not to drive anyone away from the lake, but rather to make sure it can be enjoyed safely. I feel good about the balance
we have struck.”
Whether all the committee’s plans become reality and the timing of the projects depends in large part on fundraising, said
Mayor Tom Mlada, who is chairman of the Waterfront Safety Advisory Committee.
“We have a number of things that are pretty much in place and ready to go, but other improvements will be probably be done in
a phased-in approach that will rely primarily on fundraising,” he said. “I’d also like to think that some city funding is a possibility.”
For instance, it would make sense for the city to consider paying for the infrastructure needed to support the cameras and call
boxes planned for the beach, Mlada said.
A WiFi system is being considered by the committee, one that in addition to supporting emergency beach equipment at less cost than traditional wiring would benefit the city by providing free internet access around the popular lakefront area, said Mlada, who noted that the committee’s initiatives have yet to be presented to the Common Council.
“The measure of a community is not what happens to it — bad things happen in all communities — but how it reacts when there is a tragedy,” Mlada said. “If God forbid something like this happens again in our community, it won’t be for lack of trying to prevent it.”
Image Information: AWARE THAT Port Washington’s beaches are popular in summer, as this 2011 photo of the north beach shows, the city’s Waterfront Safety Advisory Committee is proposing a number of safety initiatives starting with a surf rescue program next month. Press file photo