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Park District To Install Some Life Rings On Lakefront, But Safety Advocates Say Pilot Program Falls Short

By Marissa Parra and Mary Chappell

Chicago (CBS) -- A family's fight to get life rings along the city's lakefront gets a result, but not the one they wanted.

A yellow life ring now stands alone at the end of Pratt Pier in the Rogers Park neighborhood, marking the beginning of the city's new life ring pilot program.

On Friday, the Chicago Park District unveiled steps towards ramping up water safety along Lake Michigan. In addition to more signage and an education campaign, the district pledged to bring life rings to manned beaches – meaning those with lifeguards – as well as Pratt Pier before the 2022 beach season.

The Chicago Park District installed a life ring at Pratt Pier on Sept. 10, 2021, as part of a new pilot program. (Credit: CBS)

The program will aim to help mitigate the risks of water-related drownings and accidents, according to a press release from the Chicago Park District. Officials said the number of rings installed at each will depend on the size and configuration of the beach and the safety devices will be used in conjunction with an alarm system that will trigger alarms on a smartphone app used by lifeguards and security personnel.

It's a change in tune for the Chicago Park District. For years, the district stood firm on their stance that bringing life rings to "no swim" zones like Pratt Pier would encourage swimming in dangerous areas, inviting criticism from water safety advocates.

But the small steps towards change Friday bring little comfort to those same advocates, like Dave Benjamin from Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

"'Swim sanctioned beaches' is a code word for lifeguard beaches. The majority of the drowning incidents we're having are not at the lifeguarded beaches. They're along the Lakefront Trail, as well as the piers," Benjamin said in a zoom interview with CBS 2's Marissa Parra. "This pilot program will do absolutely nothing to address the problem that we're having."

Benjamin has long documented the dangers of the Great Lakes. One by one, he has documented every drowning in Lake Michigan since 2011, noting details relayed to him by both family and police notes.

"We've been advocating for life rings along the Great Lakes for 10 years. People saw Miguel struggling in the currents. They were six feet away from him and they had nothing to throw to him," Benjamin said. "[This announcement] is an insult and injury to his family, they're livid, I'm livid."

Miguel Cisneros is the 19-year-old who drowned at Pratt Pier last month. A strong and healthy Chicagoan who had earned a full ride to Columbia University, his death attracted public outcry and brought sharp focus to the lack of life rings along the lakefront.

As neighbors pitched in to fund and install their own life rings at Pratt Pier, the park district repeatedly took them down, telling Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) it was because they "couldn't vouch" for them and they could become a liability.

On Friday, Chicago Park District CEO Mike Kelly was asked at a press conference if he regretted that move.

"No," said Kelly. "I don't regret it. I think I made the right decision then, and I think I'm making the right decision now."

Shortly before, Kelly shared his condolences to the Cisneros family.

"I will take their words, but it means nothing if it's not followed by actions," said Cisneros' mother, Maria Diaz.

The past few hours - let alone the past few weeks - have been a whirlwind for the mother.

Amid trying to arrange funeral arrangements for her son, she became a loud voice in the fight to bring life rings all along Chicago's lakefront -- and she means all along the lake.

"They're only agreeing to that pier and beaches where lifeguards are, which isn't what we asked for," said Diaz, glancing at photos of her son behind her. "It's too late for my son to be helped, but I want other people to be helped."

The park district's plan also includes increasing "no swimming" signage, and better swimming and water safety education, even broaching the idea of restricting access to parts of the lakefront if need arises.

Kelly made clear on Friday his reluctance to bring life rings to areas where swimming isn't sanctioned-- places like Pratt Pier.

"We're in the life safety business, and teach-kids-to-swim business," he said, opposing "anything that gives a semblance of comfort to going in that water where it says do not swim."

Benjamin recoiled when he heard Kelly's words.

"In the last 12 months alone, there have been 9 drowning incidents in Chicago along the lake, where life rings could have saved a life," he said. "These are human lives."

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) said he's moving forward with an order to place Chicago Park District tax increment financing requests on hold until the district agrees to broaden life ring locations beyond manned beaches.

"Families of drowning victims want the entire lakefront protected, not just select locations. I intend to move forward with this order," Lopez said.

More drastic legal measures aren't out of the question for Cisneros' family either.

"We'll do what needs to be done," Diaz said. "I will go all the way until I get what Chicagoans deserve, which is safety on the lakefront."

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