Water safety

Water safety in Australia is failing

How can we improve Water safety in Australia

With elections looming, government is looking at the alarming increase in drowning. Below is one example of a collaborative approach which to date does not occur within the Australian Water safety industry

Swimming and Water Safety Roundtable

Avoca Surf Lifesaving Club - 14/03/2018


1. Introductions by Senator Deborah O'Neill

2. Outline of issues by Matt Thistlethwaite MP

3. Who is missing out on swimming and water safety education?

4. Why are people not receiving swimming and water safety education?

5. What can the Commonwealth government do to increase the number of Australians receiving swimming and water safety education?

6. Other business

Contribution from Surf Educators International Inc.

3. Who is missing out on swimming and water safety education?

SEI Answer - Most of the population. High risk water safety populations are also typically in lower socioeconomic regions that require subsidised practical education and skills programs. Adults and parents are generally too busy or disinterested to participate in water safety education, therefore education must be taught through the schools and the information passed onto the families. The current system does not make allowance for water safety programs that will reduce drowning; hence the current model is failing, as shown by the continued increase in drowning - contrary to the Australian Water Safety Council's (AWSC) strategy to reduce drowning by 50% by the year 2020. Based on this statement we are currently around 300% worse off in 2018 than the proposed AWSC strategy outcome.

Below is an example of one water safety program that can cater for large proportions of the population with government recognition and funding opportunity;

Surf Educators International (SEI) provides programs to over 30,000 school students per year without government or corporate support. Sustainable programs are mainly syllabus based excursions for all school students, they are not selective therefore are attending to the higher risk students within each school.

Rather than providing extensive practical lessons, SEI's goal is to pass on simple messages and skills to large audiences, providing participants with adequate knowledge to understand how our beaches work, enabling them to avoid potentially dangerous situations when they are with their family or when they become independent. Practical programs also provide a level of skill to become more relaxed with the flow of the surf break and more importantly rips.

Demonstrations and rip escapes on foam boards in a real environment, are the proven best ways to educate and equip students with lifetime aquatic skills.

When SEI was successful in gaining marginal NSW Water Safety Black Spots Funding over a two and a half year period, an extra 50,000 (approx.) school students in lower socioeconomic regions were educated either in the classroom and/or in the surf.

4. Why are people not receiving swimming and water safety education?

SEI Answer - Wasted funds. We understand that the Federal Government water safety policy is to only directly fund the administration of powerful water safety organisations. We understand this to be true & correct via the many meetings had with federal government representatives over the last 20 years. The typical reply from Federal Government when approached by surf program providers such as SEI is to "go and see one of these organisations if you want funding"

We understand that no funding goes toward programs or providers outside of these 3 organisations (apart from DO THE FIVE with Laurie Lawrence) so basically next to nothing is being produced out of federal funding to actually reduce drowning.

Furthermore - by continuing to build these organisations business entity, which now includes lobbying and artwork divisions within, only puts other real providers and experts who don't have these luxuries - at arm's length.

This is a disastrous model where any increase in drowning will provide more ammunition for these heavily funded groups to lobby for more money.

5. What can the Commonwealth government do to increase the number of Australians receiving swimming and water safety education?

Practical Solutions

Provide funding models for program providers

The mere fact that real experts, and existing sustainable programs are ignored, and by comparison paid administrators within powerful water safety organisations, who lack

experience & provide little practical knowledge are adored - is a national shame. Programs that would (In comparison) provide maximum outputs via minimal funding - do exist, but are not considered. The current recipients of funding are threatened by these expert providers because inclusion of external providers will restrict their ability to grow their brand, which is NOT in the best interest of water safety.

There is no federal money spent on programs provided by any agencies (apart from DO THE FIVE with Laurie Lawrence), however powerful water safety organisations continue to attract more and more funds for proposals that are typically not attached to pre-existing programs. So where is the accountability and due diligence within government and why aren't proven and value-for-money programs considered?

Provide Surf and general water safety education through schools

Surf Educators International Inc. currently educates over 30,000 school participants per year, at the beach and in the water. This is a real drowning reduction water safety program that could easily reach most high risk drowning populations with the assistance from state and federal governments. SEI have a track record of working with local government lifeguard services and partners SEA Australia, APOLA, Lifeguarding Services Australia and Bondi Rescue Lifeguards, rolling out award winning practical programs without funding support.

Lifeguard services and towers need to be strategized via experts

Patrolling strategies need to be overhauled i.e. we feel that the motto "if we can't see you we can't save you" is an outdated disregard for swimmers or other surf participants who (by choice or by adhering to beach rules) are not able to conduct their activity in between swimming flags. It is further proof that resources are wasted on small areas of popular beaches for approximately only 40 days per annum. Wasted resources on static patrolled surf zones where swimmers are already relatively safe, as opposed to those within variable surf zones that are at high risk are ignored by this slogan and patrols. Proof of this is provided in the drowning statistics that show drowning does not occur in between patrolled swimming areas, however does occur adjacent to, close by or in most cases within 5km from a patrolled location

The rate of guarded and unguarded drownings is increasing at beaches. There needs to be urgent collaboration between the Australian Professional Ocean Lifeguard Association (APOLA), Surf Life Saving and the heads of Council Lifeguard services to develop patrolling strategies to cater for the increased activity and population along our coastline. Much can be learned from the Gold Coast and Bondi lifeguard services, where strategies to cater for demand are already working efficiently with very few drownings.

Structural solutions

Collaboration create a level playing field with real experts and providers

Australia has the very best water safety practitioners in the world; however these experts are not consulted. There is no collaboration within Government or the Water Safety Council. Furthermore, under the current structure - the highly funded water safety bodies will continue (due to their ongoing favouritism within Government), to dominate & intimidate others within the industry, which will in time render any opposition obsolete, and further strengthen their monopoly of the industry. This will only lead to a continual upward trend in drowning as it currently stands.

Experts such as Bruce Hopkins (the world's most famous surf lifeguard), Craig Riddington (surf education provider for 20 years, and former surf champion) and many other career professionals heading up creditable water safety services nationally - are not consulted, respected or included.

To give an example of what is missing from Australia's ability to reduce drowning, both Craig Riddington and Bruce Hopkins are respectfully the best in their water safety field world-wide, they are able to take one look at a beach location and within seconds determine the variations in the surf break, dangers, sandbanks, rips and the direction of their flow, where to place swimming flags, who is at risk and what levels of risk they are at. They understand the behaviours of swimmers, why they get into trouble, why they get out of trouble, who to watch and which swimmers aren't in jeopardy, who are the risk takers and who are simply at risk due to being uneducated. They are able to save a life in minimal time with minimal fuss due to their superior skills and awareness. They know more about the ocean than any surf scientist and are trained to educate all populations on the above water safety knowledge and skills.

So it begs the question, who would the Australian tax payer prefer to be giving them advice? And who would the Australian tax payer prefer to be looking after their family's safety at the beach?

Restructure the current Australian Water Safety Council

Based on their drowning reduction policy and the current drowning increase status very little if any solutions are being produced, it is proving to be a failure.

It is a select group run by powerful water safety organisations; it provides no avenues for funding distribution, and minimal avenues for discussion and collaboration.

In its place should be a government controlled agency that has comprising of a committee including experts currently shut out of the AWSC.

Cease the continuation of Wasted  Water Safety funds

The current model is only there to win votes, not to reduce drowning.

It is not a collaborative, accountable or proactive approach to producing real programs that will reduce drowning in real time.

Recognition of providers

What is not understood is that Local Councils are the main providers of lifeguard services in Australia. Gold Coast City and Waverley Councils have remarkable statistics in relation to beach visitations, compared to guarded drownings. This has been achieved by developing efficient cost effective Council Lifeguard Services independent of the Surf Life Saving Association.

Experts like Warren Young Head Lifeguard for Gold Coast City and Bruce "Hoppo" Hopkins, Waverley Council, with a combined experience of 68 years of managing the busiest beaches in Australia, are not being consulted.

An example of successful lifeguard consultation:

Seven years ago Lifeguarding Services Australia (LSA) a company independent of Surf Lifesaving, won the tender to operate the lifeguard services at Eurobodalla's beaches. At the time Eurobodalla was the highest risk black spot in the state of NSW. The LSA Eurobodalla lifeguard service was trained and since guided under the watchful eye of Bruce Hopkins and APOLA. Since this time over a seven year period they have achieved a zero seasonal drowning record and Eurobodalla has now attained a bottom 5 high risk black spot in NSW. The lifeguard service has also realized a tight working relationship with the local Surf Lifesaving Clubs, which could not have been achieved via the administration bodies.

Bruce Hopkins is contracted by lifeguard services world-wide to better service lifeguard operations and train lifeguards, however in Australia he is not consulted.

What is not understood is that there are specialised surf education providers in Australia.  For example - Craig Riddington pioneered Surf Education for the general public over 20 years ago. A Surf Life Saving World Champion, and Australian representative swimmer, Craig used his vast experience to author and develop programs targeting rip education for school students, university students, refugees and other groups.

His efforts have never been recognised by the Australian Water Safety Council or the powerful water safety organisations

6.  Other Business

Australia's population is increasing. Melbourne and Sydney are predicted to have 8 million people living in their cities by 2050. Brisbane will have 4 million by 2050.

We are now seeing the effects of an increasing population in the drowning statistics, as more and more people are living and recreating along our coast. We can't blindly go on expecting people to swim at historical patrolled locations.

Demand driven lifeguard services providing skilled paid staff is equally important as education. If we are going to minimise the risk of drowning, both Federal and state level Governments have to allocate funds to Local Councils to support Lifeguard Services, and to specialised education programs.

There is no argument that paid lifeguards and in some cases - volunteer lifesavers save many people from drowning and serious injury each year. However, as activity increases on our beaches, demand will grow for more paid lifeguard services as seen on the Gold Coast, which is a much cheaper alternative to introducing a volunteer service via a surf lifesaving club facility.

There must be a genuine collaborative approach to develop efficient and cost effective education & beach patrolling strategies into the future.

This will mean attitudes will have to change by many within the Government & the Surf Life Saving Association, otherwise drownings will continue to increase.