Councils urged to take proactive approach to water safety

8:47 pm on 2 January 2023
Surf Life Saving

Surf Life Saving says the number of drownings last summer was double that of the year prior. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

A life-guard organisation says local councils should be looking more closely into alternatives to avoid fatal drownings this summer.

According to the organisation Surf Life Saving, the number of people dying from drowning in New Zealand last summer was up 50 percent compared to the year before.

Chief executive Paul Dalton said, from Labour Weekend 2021 to Easter 2022, the organisation counted 18 deaths from drowning and the numbers were expected to rise heading to another hot summer.

"Last summer was pretty tragic for all types of drowning. A lot of those incidents happened in January, which was probably one of the worse months on record for New Zealand."

It was pretty tough, he said.

"What we saw was a combination of the holiday period with some really good weather.

"If that weather pattern happens again this summer, when everybody is away on holidays, we will likely see some of those figures happening again, this is our fear really."

New Zealand's beach and coastal fatal drowning rates have increased over the last 5 years compared to the previous ones.

Dalton said New Zealand's rates could drop if more initiatives were in place.

In some locations signage is definitely helpful, he said.

"More so in areas where they aren't lifeguards. We are working with councils to get those warning sign protocols out there."

In March 2022, Napier City Council was the first place in New Zealand to install rescue buoys in some of its beaches, after a 5-year-old drowned on Marine Parade.

The buoys are intended for "dry rescues", which sees the floatation device thrown to the person in the water, enabling them to float while awaiting rescue by emergency services.

"We are working to make public rescue equipment available in more places," Dalton said.

"If people see somebody in trouble, they can try help them, bring them back to shore, save a life."

Dalton said the more councils get involved, the better.

"We would like to see more councils look at that as an option, where they got situations and when it is appropriate.

"If all councils take the approach that Napier City did, I think it would make a huge difference in some of the big challenges that we have and some of the statistics on incidents."

'Education is key'

People need to know in general about risks, Dalton said.

"In particularly rips. What do you do if you get into a rip, how do you survive it. Just simple messages that people might remember if they get into these situations."

Dalton said the education could come from a lot of different sources.

"We can see good education programmes coming from ACC. They've got quite a bit of firepower when it comes to getting the message out there.

"Water Safety NZ has a good programme coming out this year, in a combination of social media and advertising."

Every channel they could use to share information helped, whether it was a billboard, online or, if we could afford, putting ads on TV, he said.

"Hopefully we get lots of channels to get those messages out to people in a time that means something, and they will take it onboard."

According to Surf Life Saving, over the last 10 years, 38 percent of beach and coastal fatal drownings occurred in a surf beach.

Dalton said those looking forward to catching some waves this summer needed to be extra careful.

People going to the beach should choose a beach that has lifeguards and if they are on duty, they should make sure you and go swim between flags, he said.

"You don't swim alone, you don't drink alcohol, you don't do things that will put you at risk when you are out there enjoying the water."

Surf Life Saving statistics show males represent 87 percent of those who died from drowning over the last 10 years, while females were only 13 percent.

It was a pretty clear message that men needed to make better decisions, Dalton said.

"Not overestimating our abilities and not underestimating the risks of what we might be doing."

We want everyone to have fun, go out there and enjoy the sun and the water, he said.

"But do it with responsibility. Make sure to be always alert, in the water things can escalate way quicker than on land."

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