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warning sign at beachAn innovative dynamic warning system will protect Great Lakes beachgoers from drowning.

Warning system to prevent beach drownings

UWindsor researchers along with community partners in Bruce County are creating a real-time dynamic warning system to protect Great Lakes beach users from drowning. This system will be the first of its kind in North America.

The Mitacs Accelerate proposal, called “Socially and physically based surf warning system to improve beach safety,” is led by researcher Chris Houser in collaboration with Bruce County, the Municipality of Kincardine, and the Municipal Innovation Council.

The three-year project will start in summer 2022 at Station Beach in Kincardine, Ontario. Using automated beach activity cameras, sensors, meteorological stations, and artificial intelligence, the team will create the unique system.

Members will deploy an integrated sensor network that includes water level and wave sensors as well as traffic and pedestrian sensors. The cameras will follow protocols to anonymize faces. The team will use the data collected to understand where and when waves develop and extend that modelling using an artificial neural network.

“We think of the Great Lakes as safe, but we need to acknowledge the hazards,” says Dr. Houser, dean of science, a professor in the School of the Environment, and a researcher with the Great Lakes Institute of Environmental Research.

“Beach users may not be aware of surf hazards in the Great Lakes or appropriate swim-safe strategies but there are, on average, nearly 50 surf-related drowning fatalities each year in the Great Lakes region of North America.”

A WE-Spark think tank was instrumental in the development of this research project that will help to reduce the number of drowning fatalities and rescues in the Great Lakes.

Within the Great Lakes region, the economic burden of drowning fatalities is largest in the province of Ontario, at $380 million. Many public beaches in Ontario do not have lifeguard programs and there is a lack of active monitoring of surf conditions to provide real-time warnings.

“We’re looking forward to expanding our research into Bruce County,” says Houser. “Eventually, the locally developed surf hazard warning and forecast will be made available through a progressive beach user app.”

The project includes a public education component, with beach user surveys and community-based workshops. The team will collaborate with UWindsor psychology researchers Dana Ménard and Kendall Soucie to help design an incentive strategy to redirect people from potential hazards.

“We’re looking at a multiple flag system to show how different parts of the same beach have different hazards” says Houser.

“The hazard thresholds — red, yellow, green — will be based on local knowledge of surf conditions through a series of community-based workshops, and the risk assessment will be completed in consultation with first responders and beach managers based on predicted and measured surf conditions and real-time monitoring of beach user activity.”

The researchers will test the technology and approach so they can be duplicated across the county.

“Hopefully in year two and three we will add cameras to other beaches, so we have developed a turn-key solution for various rip currents,” Houser says. “By the end of the pilot project, we’ll have something that Bruce County could use across all of its beaches.”

Kara Van Myall, chief administrative officer for the Town of Saugeen Shores and chair of the Municipal Innovation Council, says partnering with Houser’s team is a significant win for council members as well as residents and visitors of Bruce County beaches.

“The innovative new technology combined with public education and awareness will save lives here on Lake Huron,” she says, “and in the future could help waterfront communities across the county.”