GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Department of Natural Resources is expanding its use of double red flags. The agency announced last month that the flag warnings will now be used at all swim beaches at state parks along the Great Lakes.

While the single red flag indicates extremely dangerous conditions, swimmers can still enter the water. A double red flag means water access is closed and swimmers can be fined up to $500 for entering the water.

“People can still be on the beach, they can still recreate in the park, they just cannot enter the water,” Pat Whelan, the Plainwell District supervisor of the DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division, told News 8.

A double red flag is seen at Grand Haven State Park. (Aug. 8, 2022)

The ordinance was first adopted in late 2021 and rolled out in select parks, including Grand Haven State Park, last summer. Now, the agency says all equipment is in place. Whelan says DNR officers don’t want to issue fines and will provide warnings before doing so, but safety must be a top priority.

“We want to use citations as a last resort. We are going to be patrolling the area. If we switch to a double-red flag, we are going to notify people that are in the water, either by (public address) or we will have signs that will be installed or placed along the beach to warn people. Folks in our booth will let people know as they are coming in,” Whelan said.

He said the agency has yet to issue a citation for swimming under a double red flag.

“They will be asking people to exit the water and get that verbal compliance. There is the opportunity if they refuse to exit the water or if they go back in after that initial warning that they could be cited. We really want to avoid that,” he said.

Time will tell if the double red flags bring the drowning rates down around Michigan. According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, at least 108 people drowned in the Great Lakes last year, tied for the second-highest number on record since the GLSRF started maintaining data in 2010. Of those 108 drowning deaths, 45 were on Lake Michigan and 11 were in Michigan.

Bob Pratt, the director of education for the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, supports the concept of the double red flag system, but says the DNR needs to make its system more consistent and create a standard that other municipal beaches can adopt.

“(For example, earlier this week) Warren Dunes was flying a yellow flag due to the water temperature. Van Buren State Park was flying a green flag even though the water temperature there is colder. The state parks don’t follow a consistent format for when they fly different colored flags,” Pratt told News 8. “To make it even worse, the city of South Haven was flying a green flag, and the water temperature there was dangerously cold.”

Pratt also called out signage that warns swimmers of “riptides” and “undertows” — two technical terms that don’t actually apply to the Great Lakes.

“Neither one of them really has a place in proper water safety education. What (the signs) are referring to in most cases is a rip current. There are no tides on the Great Lakes, so there are no riptides,” Pratt said. “Even on the ocean, water safety professionals don’t like the term riptide because it gives the wrong impression. Same thing with undertow. Undertow gives the impression that something is going to pull someone under, when in fact, there’s nothing in the Great Lakes that is going to pull you under. … If you can stay afloat, you can stay alive.”