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Water Safety in New Zealand

Be Prepared

The closure of over 300 NZ 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 zero’s on a budget. Unfortunately there is no column for social impact on an accountants 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 NZ social cost of a drowning is over $3 million dollars, some would argue a life is priceless. There are schools who have closed their pools to save $60K 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 swim lessons and swim skills? How about the additional baggage they carry ; “Im embarrassed I am an adult and can’t swim”; 66 of the 98 recorded drownings in 2012 in New Zealand were aged between 15 – 66.

We spend a great deal of time teaching children to swim in a pool however a very large majority of drownings occur on beaches, off shore, rivers, tidal waters and inshore still waters. And those drownings are primarily adults not children.  Consider that for the last three decades we have been very 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 around 29-30C. The disparity between a controlled indoor swim environment and almost any outdoor swim environment has changed significantly. This means that although one may be comfortable swimming in a pool they 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.  To be safe we need to be more familiar with the open water environment. After learning to swim in a pool, open water swimming , survival and safety should be the next focus area when considering water safety.

And lastly, Water Safety statistics; they are a little too all encompassing.  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 focusses to remedy. A child drowning in a bath is a parenting skill not water safety. An overboard when boating – how many boat qualifications require the person to actually go overboard and experience what it is like? There are a number of areas that need addressing in order to stop deaths by drowning. That said 90% 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 run for adults 15 and older and held in ‘natural’ 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.

An edited version of this article is also published at http://www.stuff.co.nz/stuff-nation/assignments/how-can-we-improve-water-safety-in-nz/9479438/Water-safety-Adults-needs-swim-skills-too

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