Kincardine aims to save lives with 'Smart Beach' pilot project

Despite multiple warning signs about rip currents — even signs that say no swimming in a section of Kincardine, Ont.’s beach — people continue to drown off the shores of the Bruce County town.

“They don’t want to be disappointed. They want to be in that water, maybe on a day when it’s not safe to be in the water, so hopefully with this we’ll be able to provide a safer experience for them,” said Kincardine’s Fire Chief, Brad Lemaich.

Five people have drowned in Kincardine’s waters since 2008, the most recent drowning fatality, Aleem Ramji in September 2020.

Fed up and frustrated with the drownings, local residents and officials pushed for answers.

Chris Houser, University of Windsor’s dean of science, set up a series of buoys, sensors and cameras off Kincardine’s coast to measure wave strength, currents, temperature, wind direction and swimmer’s behaviour, to try and create a data-driven warning system for Kincardine’s summer visitors.

“We have the technology that’s been brought to different beach environments in which we monitor waves and currents, but it hasn’t been brought together in this unique way, in which we’re creating a dynamic warning system that is spatially and temporally variable, and lets people know, with confidence, before going to the beach whether today is good day to go in the water or not,” said Houser.

The warning system, which aims to be operational by next summer, could come in text form, an app, or a lighting system at the beach. That’s still to be decided, as data collection has just begun.

“These are things we can’t always see, right? Right now the water looks pretty calm, but those rip currents are hard to detect, so I think making that information very visible for everyone, and providing that knowledge, is going to save lives,” said Kara Van Myall of the Municipal Innovation Council (MIC), which consists of eight Bruce County municipalities troubleshooting shared problems.

The MIC partially funded the Smart Beach project.

Kincardine’s Smart Beach project is the first of its kind in North America. It will last for three years, with expansion up and down Bruce County’s shoreline next summer and the year after. 

The price tag for the project is approximately $400,000.

For the first responders who handle Kincardine’s drownings and near drownings, their hope is this new knowledge will help them as well.

“We’re hoping that they’ll be able to provide some predictive modelling from the data, so we can make smarter choices, better choices, when we are called upon to potentially affect a water rescue. Maybe we can keep our responders safer as well,” said Lemaich.

Since 2010, more than 1,000 people have drowned in the Great Lakes in the U.S. and Canada, including 24 already this year. You can learn more about Kincardine’s Smart Beach program on its website.