Gary officials talk beach safety as summer season approaches

Gary Fire Department Deputy Chief Mark Terry recalled responding to the call July 29 of an 18-year-old Illinois teen drowning at Miller Beach.

Rayan Mohammed, 18, of Bartlett, Illinois, died after swimming out in Miller Beach near Lakeshore Drive and Sullivan Street, where high north winds created dangerous rip currents.

When the call came in, at around 2:40 p.m., Terry said he was at a search and rescue class in Valparaiso. He recalled arriving at Miller Beach at about the same time the dive units arrived, which was about 45 minutes after the call came in.

Terry said crews operate in rescue mode for an hour, which begins after divers arrive. After an hour, crews shift to a recovery mode, he said.

The dive crews operated in rescue mode for 90 minutes that day, Terry said. After that, Terry said the mission was called off because the nearly 5-foot waves meant that crews were now battling fatigue.

At 6 p.m. a beachgoer saw a body in the water three-quarters of a mile away from where Mohammed was last seen.

“If it was safe for us to be out there, we would’ve stayed out there longer. But, that day, we were fighting the fatigue of the people that were in the water, and we didn’t have an unlimited supply of divers to just keep putting more people out there.”

With beach season kicking off in two weeks, Gary fire, police and parks department and Lake County Sheriff’s Department officials gathered Thursday to talk about beach safety and emergency crew response procedures.

“We take our beach response very seriously,” Terry said. “Unfortunately, we are in a response mode not a preventive mode.”

Gary Fire Department Chief Larry Tillman said years ago the department used to have a dive team that would be at Miller Beach daily. But, Tillman said staffing changes affected the dive team.

Tillman said when he started with the department in 2005, his class of firefighters brought the department to about 300 firefighters. Today, the department has a little more than half that number — 156 firefighters, who work as firefighters and ambulance crews, he said.

“We care about the calls that go on out here at the beach. We do feel it is our responsibility because that was under the umbrella of the fire department and we were able to appropriately and quickly respond in the past,” Tillman said.

Terry, who has worked with the fire department for 39 years, said crews don’t respond until 911 is called. When crews arrive on the scene, Terry said some beachgoers or those reading about the incident online are surprised by the response.

“You expect guys in rubber suits with fins and snorkels and masks to jump off the truck, dive in the water and pull people out. We’re firefighters, and we’re EMTS and paramedics. We’re not divers, most of us aren’t divers. But we’re working on that,” Terry said.

The Gary Fire Department currently has 20 people certified for open water rescue, Terry said, with six people obtaining higher diving certifications.

Next week, Terry said eight divers will begin an advanced diving program. Once they complete that, they will be eligible to become public safety diving, where they learn rescue and recovery procedures, he said.

When a 911 call comes in for a drowning at the beach, Terry said personnel begin calling certified dive teams from surrounding communities as well as Gary Fire Department divers.

Anthony Martinez, a member of the Lake County Sheriff Department Aviation Unit, said his team helps the dive team search for drowning victims. The unit also patrols the shoreline for stranded boats, he said.

It takes between 30 minutes to 60 minutes for the dive crews to make it to Miller Beach, Terry said.

Most specialty teams, whether its technical rescue, dive, hazardous materials, work for a firefighter department as a firefighter, Terry said. When a dive call comes in, Terry said those crews have to go to their fire station, if away on another call, grab their dive gear and then head to the beach, he said.

“Dive teams just don’t sit in the fire stations ready to go,” Terry said. “I can’t send a firefighter into the water that doesn’t know how to swim.”

When firefighters arrive on scene, they interview witnesses and stage some equipment, like two zodiac boats and baskets to carry people out of the water over the sand, as they wait for dive crews to arrive.

“They are in wait mode,” Terry said. “With us being in the neighborhood, we arrive quickly. But, there’s not a lot that the firefighter can do until we can get the water rescue and the divers on the scene.”

Tawanna Lyons, the Gary Parks and Recreation Aquatics Director, said she has hired 11 lifeguards that will work from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily at Lake Street and Marquette Park beaches starting May 24 through Labor Day weekend. Lyons said she is still hiring more lifeguards and anyone interested should apply online.

Lyons said she looks forward to working with the Gary police and fire departments to ensure a safe summer and beach season.

The beaches are also stocked with water safety stations that include a life jacket and lifesaver ring with a rope, which were provided by the Friends of Marquette Park. Information on how they should be used is posted on signs along the beaches.