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How dangerous are storm drains? One Milwaukee alderman calls them a 'death trap'

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Posted at 4:13 PM, Jun 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-14 19:38:39-04

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — Authorities have found the body of one of three people who were swept into a drainage ditch in Milwaukee on Monday.

The situation highlights a danger that sits in plain sight: storm drains. Those become especially dangerous when flooding happens. It's why the Sheboygan Fire Department trains for all types of water rescues.

Sheboygan Fire Department Rescue swimmers
Sheboygan Fire Department's rescue swimmers practice saving people in Lake Michigan on June 14, 2022.

The Sheboygan Fire Department's rescue swimmers were practicing in Lake Michigan on Tuesday morning. In the last few years, the department says there has been an increase in the number of water incidents, especially in the lake. The department now has about a dozen firefighters trained as rescue swimmer, which means they carry gear with them full-time to respond to any water emergency.

Sheboygan Fire Department Assistant Chief Jeff Salzman says although he does not know the specific details of the drainage ditch search in Milwaukee, he says any water rescue can be dangerous.

Milwaukee Dive Response to storm drain
MIlwaukee dive response looking for 1 adult, 2 kids near 21st & Loomis

“One of the first things we do when we get on a scene is we do basically a risk assessment. What are the things we need? What dangers are there to the rescuers, as well as what the survivability is. You just throw that into a judgment and make calls on how you are going to approach it,” said Salzman

"It is horrendously dangerous to work on or in swift water and this far exceeded swift water last night. You saw the water levels. Certainly, swift water moving into an enclosed space like those tunnels provides us no opportunity to conduct some sort of rescue opportunities. I assure you those attempts would have results in firefighter fatalities or serious injury,” said Chief Aaron Lipski, Milwaukee Fire Department

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Sheboygan Fire Department's rescue swimmers practice water rescues in Lake Michigan.

Milwaukee Alderman Scott Spiker says the storm drain itself is a danger. According to Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), the power of water rushing into a storm drain is beyond the strength of most people.

"They are death traps in rain events like this. I was talking to MMSD and they were saying 20 feet a second of flow. 400 to 500 pounds of pressure. A grown man can't resist that so as quiet as they are right now, these are dangers in our mist,” said Spiker.

Storm drains are dangerous, according to the non-profit ProPublica. It looked into the number of Americans who have been pulled into storm drains, but say there is no official count. Using news reports, ProPublica found 35 cases between 2015-2021 and 21 of those people died. Assistant Chief Salzman says since that is still a rare event, they typically do not train for that type of rescue, but they have plans in place for any emergency.

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Milwaukee Alderman Scott Spiker calls storm drains a "death trap" as Milwaukee Fire Chief Aaron Lipski (right) stands behind him.

"For us, the rescue swimmers are the first phase of it. So you can look at these incidents as building and bringing in resources. So for us, the rescue swimmers are getting out there quickly, that is backed up by the boats that are coming in and after that, the Sheboygan County Dive team comes. After that then comes the Coast Guard and the helicopters,” said Salzman.

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