Drone will help South Haven crews find, rescue swimmers in trouble

Van Buren County

SOUTH HAVEN, Mich. (WOOD) — When there’s trouble off the South Haven shoreline, gearing up for a rescue takes time.

It takes three to four minutes for first responders to reach the scene.

“And then from there, to get somebody out into the water is probably another two minutes,” said Zach Kenreich, a firefighter-paramedic with South Haven Area Emergency Services.

Then comes the task of locating the victim, often times in rough waters.

But a new addition to the agencies drone fleet is expected to cut those important minutes by dropping a flotation device about the size of a standard life jacket near the victim. The flotation device automatically inflates when it hits the water.

“Obviously, we can fly a lot faster than someone can swim. So if we have somebody pretty far out and we can’t get to them for whatever reason, we can deploy that to them,” Kenreich said.

SHAES bought the drone with a $7,500 grant from the Albemarle Foundation. Albermarle Corp., a chemical manufacturing company, has a plant in South Haven.

“Their employees contribute a certain amount of money and then their company matches it,” Kenreich said.

Last year, Albermarle helped SHAES buy extra water rescue gear for first responders to keep in their personal vehicles so they could head straight to the beach when called and new bicycles equipped with first aid kits to help them get around downtown and the beaches when street traffic was heavy.

The drone is also equipped with a camera to help responders locate victims. A speaker on the drone helps direct rescuers to the victim.

“When we have those 3- to 4-foot waves, we’re not going to be able to speak to them, even screaming as loud as we can,” Kenreich said.

South Haven Area Emergency Services Executive Director Brandon Hinz and Albermarle Corp. software engineer Phillip Kenreich post with the new drone on May 1, 2021. (Courtesy SHAES)

SHAES said it responded to 23 incidents of distressed swimmers last summer. Three people drowned in the lake.

Kenreich says the drone and flotation devices won’t replace standard rescue procedures, sending firefighters into the water to rescue victims.

“It’s going to buy you time. And in these situations, time is a really important thing you need to have,” Kenreich said.

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