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Unsung heroes of the tides and their challenges

Unsung heroes of the tides and their challenges

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Johannesburg – As summer is upon us, there is a high probability of the number of deaths resulting from drowning sky-rocketing. People often try to escape the hot season by enjoying themselves in public and private pools, water slides, lakes, rivers, and dams or visiting the beach to cool off the heat.

However, most people who frequent these swimming facilities cannot swim. Therefore, the chances of drowning incidents intensify, thus increasing the demand for lifeguards.

Unfortunately, there is a significant shortage of these rescue members in the country compared to the number of people who frequent swimming facilities.

It is estimated that only 15% of South Africa's population can swim, and the country’s most severe drowning accidents occur in three provinces: KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Gauteng.

The National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI), a non-profit with the mission of saving lives in South African coastal and inland waters, states that the average number of drowning fatalities between 2016 to 2020 was 1477, with 258 of the victims being children under the age of 15.

NSRI Lifeguard Manager, Stewart Seini, said the organisation currently has 180 lifeguards around the country, 23% of which are female.

Moreover, 130 of these Lifeguards form part of the institute’s commercial lifeguard service that operates a high level of lifeguarding services for the municipalities that require their assistance.

Unsung heroes of the tides and their challenges

“We have 50 volunteer lifeguards who safeguard their select beaches in a voluntary capacity. This is normally in areas with no professional lifeguarding structure, but the beach remains at high risk of drownings and other water-related incidents,” said Seini.

He said the lack of finances is the main contributing factor to the shortage of lifeguards in the country. Seini explained that a well-organised, qualified, and primarily preventive lifeguard service costs are exceptionally high.

“Most volunteer lifeguards looking for a future career in lifeguarding around the country have to pay to be a member of a club, pay for their training and examination, and purchase their own personal protective kit. And then, the club has to buy and maintain their expensive equipment. When operating in a highly dynamic environment, such as the beach, your equipment needs regular replacement and upkeep,” said Seini.

He added that a minimum of one lifeguard to 75 patrons is considered the highest manageable risk in a pool facility. At the same time, a minimum of one lifeguard to 50 patrons is regarded as the highest manageable risk at a pre-designated beach area. But, due to the shortage, this criteria is often not met.

“When it comes to beach lifeguarding, it is important to remember that this ratio does not include every single person on the beach, as that is unmanageable. The ratio relates to the designated safer swimming zone, indicated by the red and yellow flags,” he said.

The organisation has introduced various swimming education programmes in KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Western Cape, and Gauteng, hoping to expand the programme to all nine provinces to ease the pressure on the existing lifeguards, considering that there is a significant shortage.

“The NSRI has three core Drowning Prevention programmes: Water Safety Education, Survival Swimming, and Pink Rescue Buoys. Our Water Safety Education programme started in 2006 and focuses on teaching people throughout South Africa to be safe in and around water, especially those most vulnerable, children under 14 years. Thus far, we have reached 3.5 million people from our water safety education programme.

“We then launched our Survival Swimming Programme at the beginning of 2020. This programme teaches children the basic skills of staying afloat should they find themselves in difficulty in the water,” said Seini

Mike Wood and Conrad Reynolds are NSRI’s lifeguards who will be gearing up this summer to save people from drowning.

Wood has been a lifeguard for over two decades. He holds the Lifeguard Area Lifeguard Manager position in Knysna, in the Western Cape. Wood has managed to save over 40 people from drowning. His first fatal drowning was at Big Bay beach years ago.

“A group of school children were left at the beach unsupervised, and three got into serious difficulties and were pulled into the rip currents. As a duty squad, we got two out, but one of them disappeared and only resurfaced after 10 minutes. I was in the IRB (Inflatable Rescue Boat), bringing him back to shore while trying to resuscitate him. After we landed, we continued for another 30 minutes before the paramedics arrived and declared him dead,” said Wood.

The incident had a psychological impact on Wood. To this day, Wood said he gets very nervous when many children are in the surf without adult supervision. However, Woods said being a lifeguard takes a special person to tackle the career. It is the most rewarding thing he has ever done.

The accomplished lifeguard said he wants to depart his knowledge and skill to aspiring lifeguards and train more of them to close the gap.

On the other hand, Reynolds’ love for the ocean led him to become a lifeguard. He has been working as a lifeguard for 13 years on and off. For the last three years, Reynolds has been stationed at Swartvlei Beach.

“I love the beach and helping people and giving back to the community, so lifesaving was the natural option. Lifesaving is an integral part of beach safety, and one should hold this in high regard,” he said.

Reynolds said he is fortunate enough not to have experienced fatal drowning incidents. He holds a record of 15 minor and three significant saves.

The two lifeguards said the most challenging part of their jobs is being aware of their environment (water areas) and allowing themselves to adapt quickly.

Original Article

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