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This article was published in the Aquatic Recreation Australia magazine in March 2015. I’ve reedited it and posted it here after Joey Rusnak in Ontario, Canada emailed me over the weekend to ask about the use of wristbands in Australia. Hi Joey, good luck with the conference; Ontario Aquatic Conference 2015 Stella line up.

When it comes to drowning prevention in Australian public swimming pools the most startling piece of information we have is the number of drowning deaths since 2003.  40 in Australia but none in Western Australia. WA have gone 12 years without a fatal drowning.

The gravity of this statistic should jump off the page. If we’re serious about drowning prevention we should find out what’s making the difference in the WA. There is a whole recipe of things happening and one is there attitude toward wristbands; children under the age of 5 are made to wear a highly visible wristband at all times.

Many centres right across Australia use a parental supervision program and have wristbands available as a resource. But only in WA do we see high take up rates though; around 95% of their centres use wristbands.  In some centres they enforce them so stringently that if you refuse a wristband for your child to wear, they won’t let you in. Centre Management are doing their best to avoid the devastation of losing a child and if you won’t contribute, then you are too much of a risk for them to handle.

Twelve years of firm and friendly reinforcement and wristbands are just part of the scenery for WA parents.

Wristbands work on some fairly subtle levels;

  1. Visual; the human brain is a highly visual machine; a picture really is worth a thousand words. A brightly colour wristband is a visual cue that reminds us of what we need to do.
  2. Social pressure; humans are herd animals. We like to be together and we like to be accepted by the herd. If all the other ‘good parents’ are within arm’s reach of their kids then, I also tend to stand closer to mine.  Long after I’ve reasoned that closer is safer, I continue to do so to show that I’m a good parent too.
  3. Habit; do something for a number of weeks and it becomes a habit. You can use this trait in any part of your life. After 12 years WA parents have developed habits that are flowing over into the other swimming environments they visit.
  4. Compliance; if you’ve witnessed the conversation between a 17 year old lifeguard and a father who isn’t actively supervising, you’ll know how difficult it is for the lifeguard and how ineffective the conversation becomes. Dad feels like his parenting skills are being criticised, he gets mouthy and the lifeguard backs off awkwardly.  A friendly conversation with Dad at the front counter while the Customer Service staff are slapping a wristband on little Johnny is a friendlier and more effective way of getting adults to comply.
  5. Risk Management; under 5s are a high risk group. By giving them 1:1 supervision, or slightly lower if they have siblings (1:2 or 1:3), then we free up the available time of lifeguards to supervise everyone else.  Competent lifeguards reduce the consequences of drowning, wristbands reduce the likelihood.

Wristbands are most effective when their message is ‘sold’ to parents at the point of entry by front of house staff.  It is then up to Lifeguards to be on the lookout for bands that have come off in the water, which is rare, and to apply another from their bumbag. It’s a team effort.

I’m yet to meet a Centre Manager who doesn’t think a parental supervision program is a good idea, yet many either, don’t use wristbands or don’t enforce them. Maybe the role of wristbands hasn’t been explained.  Maybe it’s simply that we never imagined how effective they’d be or, we’d probably have introduced them a long time ago.

Now that the WHS Act is in most states of Australia, demonstrating due diligence is going to become a critical issue. Wristbands are such a common part of the landscape these days I don’t think you could demonstrate due diligence without them. If you were in court it certainly wouldn’t be helpful for the complainant to point out that a 12 cent wristband may have avoided a death.

It’s not just a paper wristband, it’s a layer of protection. Any child who doesn’t have a wristband is a child is missing a layer of protection.

Wristbands are currently available with all parental supervision programs in Australia.  Don’t see them as an optional extra; they lie at the heart of the difference between zero in WA and forty for the rest of us.