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After Series Of Drownings, Baker Files Bill To Discourage Unsafe Swimming

A sign on a lifeguard station warns visitors of the potential dangers associated with being in the water at Nauset Beach in Orleans. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A sign on a lifeguard station warns visitors of the potential dangers associated with being in the water at Nauset Beach in Orleans. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In the wake of a series of recent drownings in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation Thursday that would increase fines for swimming outside of designated waterfronts in the state.

The bill would boost the maximum fine to $500 for entering or swimming in any waters on Department of Conservation and Recreation property not designated for swimming. The legislation is intended to provide an appropriate penalty for swimming in unsafe areas and deter park visitors from considering unsafe activities, according to the Republican.

“Swimming at undesignated waterfronts is dangerous and too often leads to tragic consequences," Baker said in a press release. “This legislation is part of a comprehensive plan to discourage risky behavior and ensure the safety of visitors to our state parks and beaches.”

Penalties for violating DCR rules and regulations currently vary depending on whether a property was once part of the Metropolitan District Commission, with fines ranging from $20 to $200. Baker’s bill would set a uniform maximum fine of $500 for entering or swimming in waters other than those designated for swimming by the DCR.

Undesignated waterfronts do not have services like clearly marked swimming areas with ropes and buoys, lifeguards, and water quality testing. They may also have hazardous features like murky water, steep slopes, and aquatic plant species, creating a potentially dangerous situation for swimmers, officials said.

The state has also been adopting new measures to encourage public safety and discourage swimming at undesignated waterfronts including posting swimming safety signs at DCR parks and beaches, including some in multiple languages at areas like Houghton’s Pond within the Blue Hills State Reservation in Canton.

DCR has also increased outreach for the agency’s Learn to Swim program, which offers free swimming lessons at 12 locations statewide for people of all ages.

The bill comes as the state has grappled with a series of recent drownings including the death of 38-year-old Worcester Police Officer Enmanuel “Manny” Familia in June, who drowned while trying to save the life of 14-year-old Troy Love at a pond in the city’s Green Hill Park. The teen, who was visiting from Virginia, also drowned.

The new legislation also comes amid a shortage of lifeguards in the state and across the country.

In response, Massachusetts officials are upping pay and offering bonuses in a bid to attract more lifeguards to protect swimmers at the state’s beaches.

Pay for Department of Conservation and Recreation lifeguards is going up from $17 to $20 an hour. Head lifeguards will start making $21 an hour, up from $18. Lifeguards who remain on the job the entire season can earn a $500 bonus.

Interested individuals can apply online or visit the DCR’s lifeguarding webpage, where application information and lifeguard requirements can be found.

Baker's bill now heads to the Massachusetts Legislature for their consideration.

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