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‘Swim-able days’ are days with temperature, wind and humidity that are more favourable for swimming. It was a term coined by researchers a couple of years ago looking for patterns amongst drowning data. Over the 2018-19 holiday season we saw a large number of swim-able days. By Boxing Day we’d had 26 fatalities for 26 days and by the middle of January, it was over 50.

It’s this type of statistic that reminds me of the role public facilities play in providing for communities. We should feel good. We provide the safest places to swim in Australia. It’s been that way for decades and not without hard work and, if we want to continue be the giants of water safety, there’s a little more to do.

In Australian facilities, we’ve become good at preventing drowning. I’m referring to the drowning process; respiratory impairment caused by water in the upper airway. After all, the kid floundering in your pool yesterday that was saved by the lifeguard… he drowned, just not fatally. So, as I was saying, in the main, preventative measures are stopping drowning before it even occurs.

When a Coroner assembles all the facts that were happening in a pool hall in the lead up to a ‘bad moment’, you start to realise that there are some aspects that are incredibly difficult for us to foresee/know about/consider/see/control.

We’re doing a good job and… because there are so many aspects at play in drowning prevention, we need to keep working at it. Being good at preventing drowning is also producing a unique set of circumstances;

  1. Innovation to improvements can be slower.
  2. Our reaction to an event can sometimes be a bit sharp.
  3. We’re not sure what to do after an event.

Have you ever stopped to think about what drives improvement? What inspires you, encourages you or even makes you improve. Let’s face it, when you’re employed by someone else, you can want to improve, and you can be made to improve.

Apart from our fundamental human drive to want to help and save people, other countries (USA, Canada, UK) have additional drivers. Strong drivers that continue the good fight and see advancements implemented relatively quickly.

Litigation is one. Last year an Illinois family were awarded around AU $30 M after their son fatally drowned in a pool during a summer camp activity. A contributing factor was that the facility was running two lifeguards instead of three.

Indictment is another. Last year, in what I think is a world first, a US lifeguard was successfully convicted for the length of time it took him to save a child. A child who went on to make a full recovery. They basically went to trial to determine how long can an error last before it is considered criminal.

These two events alone are having a huge ripple pond effect on their industry and much brain power will be expended developing better ways to prevent drowning injury and death.

It’s ironic but good things come from bad days and this is also evident in Australia. I routinely see organisations, facilities, and staff who after going up against a bad day, go onto to be better resourced, have the best risk management processes, the best induction plans and the best trained teams. Prior to that day their practices were probably no worse than anybody else’s.

You’ll notice above I mentioned “prevent injury and death” rather than “prevent drowning”. Prevention is what we do before a loss of control event (drowning) and mitigation is what we do after the loss of control point. When we focus too much on prevention, we tend to get dull on the mitigation side of the risk equation. Effective risk management needs the whole box and dice; preventative and mitigative measures. If you’re out there just trying to prevent drowning, then every time some kid gets into trouble, you’ve failed. You haven’t prevented drowning.

We don’t see much litigation for drowning events in Australia and we haven’t had a lifeguard charged, neither lone convicted. So, what are our drivers? The Work Health Safety Act is starting to become one. WorkSafe is particularly active in some states and demonstrating due diligence will be key. So, will having good advice if you come up against a WorkSafe Officer with a poor understanding of what is and isn’t reasonably practicable.

In some parts of Australia, I’ve seen a bit of a stigma around facilities who go through a bad day. Even for near misses I’ve heard of Duty Managers and lifeguards being temporarily stood down, other centres tut tutting, and industry bodies providing unhelpful commentary. It’s as if whenever someone gets into trouble in the water, it’s seen as some big failure, even when the person makes a full recovery. Again, this could be coming from our language about what we’re trying to prevent. Anyone who has been seen to have “failed” can be looked down upon by those who have, so far, been achieving it. Drowning isn’t usually a case of if, but when.

It’s important that when people are living their (and our) worst nightmare, we do what we can to support them. We’re in the drowning game. Every day we go up against the Swim Reaper. When drowning happens, we need good mitigative processes that focus on preventing injury or death. And then, if injury or death does occur, we need processes that support our staff, rather than ostracise them. The performance of our lifeguards is usually a reflection of the broader attitude and processes of the managing organisation.

I receive calls from managers, duty managers and lifeguards after serious event. Their most common question is what should I do now? In my mind the first thing is to make contemporaneous notes.

Contemporaneous notes are those you make after an event without being led by a line of questioning. If a Police Officer invites you to the station to make a statement straight after an event, you could say something like:

I’m not up for making a statement right now. I’m happy to assist with the investigation but I just need some time to myself. If you give me your contact details, I’ll call you in a few days”.

If you’re unsure ask for help from someone you trust; a mentor, your Mum or Dad, or a lawyer friend. Our memory of events change, so it’s important to make notes as soon after an event as possible, preferably before going to bed that day.

One of the hormones our bodies releases during our flight or fight mechanism is cortisol. It gets you ‘in the zone’ and provides that mental clarity during times of high arousal. After an event you might find it gives you, what I describe as, high definition memory. Use it to your advantage.

Your notes should capture everything before, during and after the event in as much detail as you can. It may be months, even years before you know if you need to appear in court and your contemporaneous notes become invaluable.

The advice I received was that you shouldn’t give them to the Police or even your employer but keep them and give them to who ever represents you in court. For Police Statements and incident reviews, tell the truth, keep answers short and if you can answer with yes or no, do so.

Doing our jobs properly is the best protection.

Do everything you reasonably can to prevent these events and then prepare your team like it’s inevitable.

We’re in the drowning game. No one wants to go through a fatality but if it happens, it isn’t the end of the road. Good things can come from bad days when there aren’t external drivers helping you make the improvements you want to make.