Water safety: Adults needs swim skills too

Last updated 09:30 05/12/2013
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How can we improve water safety in NZ?

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The closure of over 300 school pools in the last decade is a sad reflection of the times.

A pool will always lose when it comes to accounting-based decision making because it often takes up a significant amount of zeros on a budget. Unfortunately there is no column for social impact on an accountant's report; health and well-being from obesity through to drownings are all actual outcomes for closing a school pool.

Demands on public pool usage only continues to grow as our population grows.

Having a school pool is the only way for a school to guarantee regular quality access to swim lessons for their students. For many schools that opportunity is now lost. My own primary school pool is long gone, making way for a lovely carpark.

For decades the accepted New Zealand social cost of a drowning has been more than $3 million dollars, but some would argue a life is priceless. There are schools who have closed their pools to save $60,000 in a year. Was that really a justified saving?

Swimming pool access and child Learn to Swim is only part of the problem, thankfully it receives attention unlike other aspects of swimming safety.

What about all the adults who missed out on sufficient Learn to Swim while they were at school? Where do they go to get swimming lessons and water skills?

There are yet more pieces to the water safety jigsaw. Consider that for the last three decades we have been consistently covering all our swimming pools. We have also been steadily increasing the temperature at which we heat the indoor pool water. When I was a kid swimming outdoors in 18C was the norm, now you will most likely swim indoors with a water temperature of around 29-30C.

The disparity between a controlled indoor swim environment and almost any outdoor swim environment has changed significantly. This means that although you may be comfortable swimming in a pool, you are far less likely to be comfortable and therefore less able to cope in an external water environment. This disparity only increases the risk for panic with an unplanned entry into the water in an outdoor environment.

We spend a great deal of time teaching children to swim in a pool, however a large majority of drownings occur on beaches, off shore, rivers, tidal waters and inshore still waters. And those drownings are primarily adults not children.

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There are a lot of variables that affect our safety record. A focus on child Learn to Swim is vital. Well done to Surf Life Saving New Zealand for their school beach education work, they should realistically be playing a bigger part in the water safety picture.

Water safety statistics are a little too all encompassing. They broaden the water safety scope too far and risk diluting effectiveness. A child left attended in a bath, a capsized boat, a teenager diving in a river and knocking themselves unconscious and an adult swimming out too far and panicking, all come under our drowning statistics. They all require different focuses to remedy.

Trying to put the same amount of resources into each is a tremendous stretch. A child drowning in a bath is a parenting skill not water safety.

Ninety percent of drownings are in open water, two thirds of drownings last year were adults.

Swimming and survival skills for children are an important preventative measure.

More swimming education and survival classes for adults 15 and older and held in open water environments are needed. This focus would have a by far the biggest impact on our drowning statistics.

New Zealand is a nation of water lovers, it's time we started acting like it by taking to the open water and preparing to survive. 

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