Northern lifeguards face greater demands

For Surf Life Saving Northern Region

Surf Life Saving Northern Region (SLSNR) lifeguards are winning the battle to keep the public safe on their beaches – but face challenges with land-based fishers and some water-craft users.

SLSNR Chief executive Office Matt Williams says the tragic death of a fisherman swept off the rocks at Whatipu on 17 November was a stark reminder of the high risks posed by the activity.

“We’ve made great progress in managing the drowning toll at our beaches, but we’re still seeing many lives lost among those fishing off the rocks or beaches along our coasts,” says Williams. “In the last 10 years, 31 people have drowned fishing from the rocks or beaches in the Northern Region, including three since September this year, despite efforts to encourage safer behaviour, such as the use of lifejackets, appropriate clothing and the provision of Angel Rings.”

Williams says SLSNR, Auckland Council and Drowning Prevention Auckland (DPA) will be pulling out all the stops to address the high level of rock-fisher incidents and deaths this summer.  “It’s a top priority for us – we want all users of our coastline to enjoy it safely.”

While the rock-fishing issue isn’t new, Williams says it’s just one aspect of a significantly expanded role now expected of lifeguards – and not just over the summer. “Our mission has expanded and changed quite dramatically in the last few years.  We’re accustomed to providing safety and emergency support services for the public coming to our beaches – our whole ‘swim between the flags’ model – but we’re now being called on to respond around the clock to incidents on the coast - land or sea. While that means many more lives saved and people returning home to their families it is a change that does not come without its challenges.

“We get call-outs to assist in emergencies involving boaties, people fishing, divers, surfers and people just clambering around the rocks or walking along the coast – and that is year-round.”

Callouts for SLSNR’s club-based rescue teams in 2018-19 were double the previous year – on top of an already-significant, and annually increasing, 66,000 hours of volunteer patrol time, says Williams. And the brief had now expanded beyond the 22 formally patrolled beaches in the Northern Region.

“The public can go to any beach or cove or offshore island and dive, fish, surf or swim. But if they get into trouble they may be many kilometres from help. So we can be tasked with responding to any location on or off our coast, at any time of day or night. We now have a de facto responsibility for any beach in our region – patrolled or not.”

Williams says SLSNR has instituted a number of new training modules to meet the different rescue requirements. “Thanks to our partners we can continue to provide vital services to swimmers on our coastlines.”

He says the on-the-beach requirements at SLSNR’s patrolled beaches have also grown hugely in recent years.  “As Auckland grows, with more people coming into the region from other parts of the country or from overseas, our roll-up crowds just keep getting bigger. And it’s not just over summer. For various reasons we’re now seeing decent crowds at our major beaches earlier and later than purely December through February and getting into trouble, which is leading to our increased emergency callouts.”

That growth has put major pressure on the movement to attract and retain volunteers, says Williams. “Our lifeguards are working extended hours into the evening – which has been an important change, since many incidents happen after traditional patrol hours. But we had days last season where our guards were utterly exhausted, such was the public demand for their attention and services, and were then getting called to after-hours rescues after a full day of patrol. While such heroics are admirable and to be celebrated in the short-term, I worry for the long-term sustainability of that provision and our ability to grow the organisation with current resource levels.”

Williams says a number of legacy issues also put pressure on the movement, in particular the ageing club facilities at our beaches. “Pleasingly, we have a programme underway to address that – though it will take time, and more volunteer efforts. We hope to eventually see good infrastructure in place to give our volunteers the modern platform they need to work from.”

SLSNR was keen to see a continuation of the generally sensible behaviour at the region’s beaches that saw a heartening record of no drownings at patrolled beaches in the region last season, says Williams. “Staying safe at the beach is a partnership: we have a very clear set of dos and don’ts that will avoid trouble in the water but we need people to take more responsibility for their own safety, buy into those messages - and encourage their fellow-beachgoers to do the same.

“If the beachgoers themselves can strongly advocate for safe behaviour while keeping the beach fun – we will avoid tragedy.”

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