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Curious City

Why Do Chicago Beaches Ban Flotation Devices?

Summer’s here. The kids are out of school. And Chicagoans are flocking to the city’s beaches.

Juli Billings-Walter used to take part in this summer ritual when her five kids were young. And she remembers seeing a puzzling scene play out every time a family arrived at the beach.  

“They’d show up with their kids and a whole bunch of life jackets,” she recalls. “They’d put them on the kids and the kids [would] go paddling into the water. Then the lifeguards would just flip out and start screaming at people like, ‘You have to take that off, you have to take that off.’”

Juli always believed those life jackets and other flotation devices could actually make kids safer. So she wrote to Curious City and asked.

Why can’t you bring flotation devices into Chicago pools and beaches?

So when Juli’s kids were growing up, the Chicago Park District banned all life jackets. Today, they still ban certain life jackets, but swimmers are allowed to wear Coast Guard approved water wings and life jackets, which have been tested for things like fit and child safety.

That said, pretty much every other flotation device boogie boards, noodles, rafts, tubes, loungers and any other type of inflatable are still banned in all Chicago Park District pools and beaches.

Why? Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner sent the following statement:

“The Chicago Park District practices lifesaving safety rules that focus on protective measures for avoiding serious injuries. Floatation devices intended for recreational purposes do not abide by these preventative guidelines.”

But Maxey-Faulkner didn’t make anyone at the Park District available to discuss the policy.

So we turned to regional and national experts who offered some compelling reasons for the ban at the beaches around Chicago.   

A sign explains that only Coast Guard approved flotation devices can be worn at the beach. (WBEZ/Monica Eng)

Why are floatation devices banned?

Tom Gill, a spokesman for the United States Lifesaving Association, explains that, for one, a lot of people who use them don’t know how to swim.

“[And those] people will use flotation devices as a lifesaving device and most flotation devices are never meant to be lifesaving devices,” he says. “They are easily lost from a person’s control, and then if they go into a deeper area where [the user] cannot swim, they’re going to go under very quickly.”

Other common reasons for banning the devices include problems with parental supervision, liability, and overall safety, municipal authorities say. They include claims that:

  • Flotation devices give parents a false sense of security about their kids and may encourage them to stop watching the child if he/she is using one  
  • Many are cheaply made and can be easily punctured and deflated
  • They can easily slip off a child
  • Large floatation devices can make it hard for lifeguards to see if a person underneath it is struggling
  • One municipality even said it couldn’t get insurance for its facility if it allowed flotation devices

Still, Gill notes that beach policies vary widely community by community.

“For instance, here in Virginia Beach, we don’t ban all flotation devices,” he says. “We just make sure they are staying in a shallow area where, if [swimmers] were to get off that flotation device, they still would be safe.

“But we know everybody’s different and we know that everybody is trying to make the best decision to keep their beachgoers safe based on their local conditions.”

Experts say a reason why large floatation devices are banned is because they can make it hard for lifeguards to see if a person underneath them is struggling. (Getty Images)

Lake Michigan is more dangerous than many think

Many people underestimate the dangers that come with the windy, unpredictable local conditions on the Great Lakes, says Dave Benjamin, a safety advocate who heads the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

“We’ve had 660 drownings in the Great Lakes since 2010,” he notes. “Half of those were in Lake Michigan,” and half of those happened in the south end of the lake, here in Chicago, and in Milwaukee and Northwest Indiana.

Benjamin attributes these drownings, in part, to the shifting winds and dangerous water currents in the area. When you add flotation devices to that equation, he says, that combination can be surprisingly dangerous.

“These toys can actually pose some hazards that people are not aware of,” Benjamin says. “If there is a light offshore wind, it could blow the inflatable object into deeper water where the child or parent could go after it.”

And when they go after it, he says, swimmers can end up in currents or winds that make it impossible to return. Other beachgoers can be blown far into the lake while on a flotation device that they can’t control. This happened to an Indiana couple in 2012 and to Chicago kids in 1988.

Two cousins — a boy and a girl — took a raft out near Montrose Harbor on a warm April afternoon, after the wind pushed them far into the lake. Finally, they jumped off to try to swim back, the winds were strong and the water was cold. A windsurfer was able to save the 11-year-old boy, but the boy’s 10-year-old cousin drowned.

It’s worth noting that the park district’s ban does not apply to the boating areas beyond the swimming buoys, where boaters can freely use rafts and inner-tubes. Gill, of the Lifesaving Association, notes that these areas are governed by the Coast Guard (not parks), which requires every passenger on the boat to have a life jacket as well.  

The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project trains lifeguards on water safety and drowning survival strategies. (Courtesy Dave Benjamin)

What about beaches to the north and south?

When it comes to flotation-device bans, Chicago may have some of the most restrictive beaches in the area. Up at Lake Michigan beaches in Milwaukee, flotation devices are strongly discouraged at beaches without lifeguards, but still allowed. Milwaukee’s one beach with a lifeguard, however, prohibits devices not approved by the Coast Guard.

At the beaches in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, flotation devices are permitted but authorities “caution their use for safety reasons during strong winds, specifically south winds, as they can push swimmers far into Lake Michigan.”

And at the many completely unguarded beaches throughout Michigan’s Harbor Country on the other side of the lake, swimmers can use flotation devices freely — but at their own risk.

For those folks, Benjamin has some advice: “Don’t go out in an inflatable raft with an offshore wind,” he says. “And if the wind blows an inflatable toy out, just let it go. It’s not worth it.”

Finally, if you have to choose just one flotation device for your next trip to the beach, he says, “make it a U.S. Coast Guard-approved, properly fitting life jacket.”

More about our questioner

(WBEZ/Monica Eng)

Juli Billings-Walter is a public radio listener and Chicago-area lactation consultant. She says she took her five kids — now in their teens and 20s — to Foster Beach every Friday of the summers.

And it’s there that she saw the city’s “no flotation device rule” play out.

When she heard about the reasons for bans across the country, she thought some made sense especially those about giving swimmers a false sense of security.

“My own daughter was wearing a flotation device in a pool when she was three, and took it off to go to the bathroom and then just jumped back into the deep end,” she recalls. “I had to fish her out from the bottom of the pool.”

She can also relate to the danger of objects being blown into the lake.

“One day, we were at the beach with an umbrella,” she recalls. “And the wind just picked it up, and carried the umbrella almost across the lake. It was just gone. That was really scary.”

Still, Walter never understood the restrictions on life jackets she saw over the years. So she’s glad to hear that the city does allow them these days.

“I just wish they publicized that more,” she says. “I know that they rent things out at the beach, like volleyball nets, and so wouldn’t it be great if they would rent life vests out at the beach, too?”

Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org

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