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We caught up with Dr Jill Fortuin, Executive Director of Drowning Prevention at the NSRI, to find out what her department has been up to.

Established in 2013, the current Drowning Prevention department at the NSRI was a natural progression from the Water Wise programme, the organisation’s previous water safety initiative.

“We have evolved substantially since then, continuously trying to expand our Drowning Prevention Services to make the maximum impact on reducing the drowning incident in South Africa,” says Executive Director Dr Jill Fortuin.

She and her team are certainly making progress: to date, their programmes and instruction courses have reached over 3 million South Africans, 1335 Pink Rescue Buoys have been deployed, 118 rescues have taken place, and three beach safety cameras have been installed – although, they still have a long way to go.

“We started with eight water safety instructors, then expanded to 17, and today we have 31 in 2022. Bearing in mind we want to reach the entire population of 60 million people!”

It’s an impressive ambition, a reflection of her passion for this life-saving work, and that of the volunteers and professional instructors on her team.

At the beginning of 2020, Sea Rescue launched its Survival Swimming Programme, which teaches four basic skills, to aid when in difficulty in water and to enjoy the water. The initiative came about after several stories emerged involving children drowning a metre or two from safety. The NSRI adopted the Survival Swimming Programme as advocated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

“Survival Swimming is not only for children but for all people,” says Dr Fortuin. “The importance of these skills is to enable people to enjoy water and equip them to be able to self-rescue. Survival Swimming teaches four skills: breathing, orientation, floating and moving through water. Our aim for 2022 is to present 25 000 survival swimming lessons throughout South Africa. Our focus is KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, where the highest incidence of drowning occurs in South Africa. We’ve completed roughly 50% of our training goals in both province so far.”

The SS team recently benefited from the sponsorship of additional equipment, allowing the mobile Survival Swimming Centre (SSC), housed in a donated shipping container, to be used in rural remote regions. The next Centre is being prepared for Tombo in the Eastern Cape – although Dr Fortuin and her team are still trying to secure funds for instructors and to complete the third unit earmarked for KwaZulu-Natal. “Thereafter we will be moving to places where there is a high incidence of drowning, no municipal swimming pools and a community who is keen to embrace such an initiative.”

There’s also plenty on the go outside of the SSC project. Recently, the department oversaw the installation of a beach safety camera in Herolds Bay in the Western Cape. “There are dangerous currents with a limited view on that particular beach, so having a beach safety camera improves surveillance.”

Dr Fortuin is also intimately involved in lobbying to have new swimming pool bylaws passed in the Western Cape, laws that will make it mandatory for all swimming pools to be surrounded by safety barriers to prevent drowning. “We’re nearly there, about 75% completed,” she says.

It’s all in a day’s work for one of the NSRI’s most dedicated members, whose efforts have no doubt helped to save countless lives.

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