New technology "greenlights" safety in the water

Collaborator: Rachael Schuit
Published: 07/26/2021, 8:22 PM
Edited: 07/26/2021, 9:54 PM

Photo Courtesy: SwimSmart Warning Systems

(Mich.) Two beaches along Lake Michigan have some new warning lights this year, designed to help people decide if they should go in the water. 

SwimSmart Warning Systems has placed beach warning lights on Anchor Road Beach in Frankfort and Pere Marquette Beach in Muskegon. 

The lights are connected over the internet to the National Weather Service's forecast for beach conditions. 

"They use all of their weather data to make a forecast and then our, basically our software will read their server or read their data and then just grab that and put it onto our light so our light is constantly monitoring what the weather service is saying," said Jacob Soter, one of the co-founders of the SwimSmart Warning Systems. 

The lights update to green if conditions are considered a low hazard, yellow for a medium hazard, and red for high hazard conditions. 

Soter says that while this is the first year the lights have been on any beaches, he's been part of the project that created them for the last five years. 

Soter was an engineering student at Michigan Technological University when he and other students decided to design the lights after hearing a presentation at a Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium event. 

Soter said one of the presentations was about the inconsistency of how often the flags that are supposed to warn people about the beach conditions are updated.

"We were just young students at the time but we were like hey we can make a traffic light, you know, just connect it to the internet and have them change it," said Soter. 

Soter decided to keep working on the project year after year and co-founded SwimSmart Warning Systems with Dr. Andrew Barnard, one of his professors at Michigan Tech. 

Jamie Racklyeft, the Board President and Executive Director for the Great Lakes Water Consortium says the organization is thrilled to see the warning system on beaches. 

"It's exciting, we've supported them from the start and I've seen the one at Frankfort a couple times and I think it's great," said Racklyeft. 

Racklyeft almost drowned in Lake Michigan in 2012 and has since become an advocate for water safety.

"I got caught in a rip current by Leland and almost drowned," said Racklyeft. "If it hadn't been for two strangers who comandeered a kayak and got to me at the last second, I wouldn't be here."

He hopes these lights will help people make safe decisions when deciding to go into the water. 

If a person does find themselves in a scary situation in the water, Racklyeft says, there's a simple phrase to remember: flip, float, follow. 

"Everyone knows stop, drop and roll if they catch on fire but not enough people know about flip, float, and follow if they're drowning," says Racklyeft. "So flip over on to your back, conserve energy, control your panic as you float, inhale to fill your lungs with air so you're more buoyant and can last longer, yell for help, and follow the path of least resistance back to shore which is not back towards the current."

The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project said so far 44 people have drowned on the Great Lakes in 2021. 

Soter said he hopes these lights will help prevent future drownings. 

"A lot of people don't understand how dangerous the water actually is in the Great Lakes," said Soter. "So having something out there other than subjectively saying hey that looks dangerous or it doesn't, now you have something you can gauge it against. And I think that's important."

Soter said SwimSmart is currently working to get other beaches to use the light systems. 

In addition to paying attention to things like the beach warning lights, there are other things people can do to help prevent drownings.

According to Racklyeft, those include wearing a life jacket while in the water, and not entering the water if the waves are high.

If you're trying to save someone from drowning, Racklyeft says it's important to help yourself first. 

"Make sure you have some floatation before you try to save someone else," said Racklyeft. "Look around for a life ring, look around for other rescue equipment."

If you would like more information about SwimSmart Warning Systems, you can visit their website here:

Information about the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium can be found here:


Ann Marie Worthley
07/30/2021, 5:41 PM

Great story!