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As the busiest time of year for SA beaches draws to a close, lifeguard operations manager Stewart Seini reflects on a season well executed by NSRI lifeguards.

In December 2022, thousands of South African holidaymakers flocked to beaches across the country in rates that were definitely “back to pre-covid levels”, says NSRI lifeguard operations manager Stewart Seini. Thankfully, beaches monitored by NSRI lifeguards were well-protected.

“This past year, we were able to collect more data on the beaches we protected, however it’s tricky to compare this data to the previous year, as we were not able to secure municipal contracts for as many beaches. When we compare beaches that we have protected over the past two seasons, though, we are seeing a slight increase in the number of people. The number of incidents have also decreased from last year as we have increased our prevention actions significantly.”

The NSRI lifeguard rescues in numbers:

• 50 000 bathers and 180 000 beach goers attending protected beaches in December 2022, compared to 83 000 bathers and 260 000 beachgoers in December 2021.

• 79 rescues were executed in December 2022, with a total of 91 people rescued; 49 were 0-50m from safety flags; 24 were 50m+ further out (184 rescues were conducted in December 2021).

• 114 first aid treatments were applied (176 first aid treatments were applied the previous year).

This is the first year where we didn’t have to close a single beach due to shark activity, says Stewart. “On a usual day we have to close at least one of our beaches per day or multiple times per day, but shark activity this year along our beaches has been low.”

He also notes that, compared to previous years, jellyfish and blue bottle stings continue to be a major cause of first aid treatments

Lifeguard roundup 1

New interventions

A number of new interventions have helped lower rescue and incident rates, compared to the previous holiday season:

1. A new beach camera:

“We introduced a PTZ [pan/tilt/zoom] camera system to Buffalo Bay beach in the Knysna area,” says Stewart. “This camera is monitored during the season by a dedicated person in our emergency operations centre [EOC] in Cape Town. This allows the viewer to see much further than the lifeguards on duty, as it has a 50x zoom function and can pan and tilt to cover a large area. It also becomes useful if someone gets into difficulty in the water when no lifeguards are on duty, as the operations centre staff can go to the camera, identify where people have gotten into difficulty, and provide real-time feedback to the rescue crews that allows them to go directly to the site of the emergency, rather than having to start a search effort.”

2. Top notch training:

“Thanks to the support of the RNLI [Royal National Lifeboat Institute] in the UK, which provided us with the pre-deployment training programmes that they conduct with their lifeguards, we were able to prepare NSRI lifeguards to talk to people on the beach and provide the most effective preventative actions.” One of the major issues faced is that people don’t listen to the lifeguards, especially if they are young. Up until the NSRI started lifeguarding, lifeguards were taught to observe the beach and perform rescues. “We now focus a huge effort on preventing incidents before they can occur,” says Stewart, “and one of the most effective prevention actions we do is talking to people, warning them about the possible dangers they face and getting them to move to the red-and-yellow lifeguard flags. However you need to address the public with the right tone, use the correct wording, otherwise it seems like an order, and people don’t like to be ordered around; people come to the beach to have a good time and feel free. So we focus on the different ways to talk to the public, how to avoid conflict if members of the public become hostile, and how to overcome different objections if they refuse to take the lifeguards’ advice.”

3. New signage:

Two new signs were added to the NSRI lifeguarding pop-up beach signage. “This included a warning sign, to which the lifeguards could add a specific message or danger, as well as additional signage that lifeguards can place at beach access areas which states that this is not a lifeguarded area, pointing the public in the direction of the lifeguarded area. We also continued our temporary tattoo ‘swim between the flags’ campaign with the kids.”

Lifeguard roundup 2

New year, new challenges

This year the NSRI had fewer lifeguards on duty than previous years, as the organisation was not able to secure a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with five municipalities with which it had previous agreements. This was due to internal municipality issues, says Stewart: “Namely, municipalities failing to organise their beach safety plan timeously, despite the NSRI continuously reminding them on the timelines required. This resulted, for example, in MOUs not being signed as the relevant municipal staff members had already gone on leave.”

Funding is a continual challenge: the NSRI can’t provide lifeguarding services for free, as much it would like to. “The lifeguards need to be paid; kit and equipment are expensive. As an NPO, we just can’t afford to provide lifeguard services for free, especially when the municipality has a mandate to put lifeguards on a beach and it gets budgeted for.”

Another challenge for NSRI lifeguards this year has been changes to the beach conditions, resulting in an increase in rip currents: a major cause of drowning and near-drowning incidents. “Mostly, rip currents can be avoided if people follow the signage, warnings and advice of lifeguards who encourage people to swim between the flags. But some people refuse the advice, which puts the lifeguards in a difficult situation as they now have to focus on watching people swimming in dangerous areas as well as flagged zones.”

Overall, a successful season!

“We are incredibly happy with how lifeguard operations went this year,” says Stewart. “As far as operations went, it was the most professional, well conducted season. The lifeguards were really impressive and conducted themselves in a ‘safety first’ manner while ensuring that they maintained the values of the NSRI. I was impressed with the rescues they performed, their first aid treatment and the prevention actions they carried out. We received numerous compliments from the public, and we love to hear this because when a member of the public steps onto an NSRI lifeguarded beach, we want them to feel safe and in good hands.”

Currently, there is not much he would change in terms of operations for the next season. “In February we’ll start looking at all our available data and stats, which will give us a deeper insight into the season's operations and allow us to look at changes for next season.”

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