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NSRI CEO Dr Cleeve Robertson reflects on the organisation’s progress in 2023, and looks ahead to the coming year.

Aligning with global strategy

In December, Drowning Prevention Executive Director Dr Jill Fortuin and I attended the World Conference on Drowning Prevention in Perth, Australia. I was heading over to visit my daughter anyway, so a stopover in Perth wasn't too onerous, although I found the sleep cycle disruption quite extreme! It was interesting to be among 700 delegates from over 50 countries all there to learn and contribute to “Shaping a Global Strategy: Mobilizing for Local Action” for Drowning Prevention. In terms of local action, I think the NSRI is a leading agency and many of our programmes and innovations are well ahead of the world, so kudos to our people.

The impact of climate change was a big theme, as was responder wellbeing, both issues the NSRI is conscious of and addressing systemically. I was a bit disappointed by the technology component, I thought there would be greater innovation with greater impact. More can be done with AI I'm sure. Experiences of drowning inland are similar to ours across the world, and there's plenty of work to do in designing strategies to eliminate fatal drowning across the country, and swimming between the flags seems to be a narrow doctrine when in reality most beaches are not lifeguarded.

We don't collaborate enough across various sectors, something we need to think about locally. How do we work together to drive partnerships that have high impact at low cost?

Funding in 2023

The operating environment for the NSRI and non-profits in general is tough and getting tougher. Last year was a difficult one for operations: the socio-economic environment is a real challenge post COVID, and climate change impacts create greater risk for water related incidents and drowning.

The financial playing field is tight and for the first time we are seeing revenues plateau within our current fundraising model. We still collected substantial revenue and maintained a healthy operational surplus to keep us going, but the margins are narrowing. We maintain very loyal donor support but we need to expand.

Volunteers: the lifeblood of the NSRI

Volunteer sustainability remains a key issue and it is refreshing to see the continued recruitment, enthusiasm, passion and commitment of so many diverse members across a national footprint. Their responsiveness and willingness to get up and go at all times of the day and night is astounding. Providing a national strategic rescue service off the back of an entirely volunteer workforce is remarkable. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude for their selfless attitude, the work they do and for the very real lives they save. Kudos to every NSRI volunteer. I think we have to face the challenge of attracting a more diverse volunteer cadre and maybe we need to commission a study to evaluate why we don’t.

Managing operational growth

The biggest operations issue of the last quarter has been the explosive growth of Lifeguarding contracts to over 70 beaches, and despite the short timelines for planning and implementation, the team was able to land all services and deliver them at good quality over the summer season. The operations teams reserve a huge thanks for setting up these services in time for the holidays!

The season has been busy but not exceptional and by all accounts been ‘business as usual’ with regards to the responsiveness of crews. The Red and Yellow are out there on a beach or water body near you and we've had some great feedback from the public on the quality of our volunteers and staff on duty.

Fatal drownings at beaches continue. As I mentioned earlier, we need a solution to beaches not covered by lifeguards, a global problem. Inland, I’m not sure that we have a dynamic enough reporting system to understand the incidence/prevalence of drowning and we have lots of work to do across the country. Which brings us to…

Drowning Prevention

Water safety education: Jill and her team have exceeded their water safety education targets, while the challenge in achieving competence in Survival Swimming is recognised and will need a focused strategy. I think we need far greater collaboration with like-minded organisations to achieve scale and ensure every child is swimming safe.
Jill presented again at the WCDP in Perth and is making good progress in establishing connections after her visits this year to India, Tanzania, Netherlands and Australia. The fact that we are getting the attention of David Meddings at the World Health Organisation is an illustration of the network she has been able to build.

Pink Rescue Buoys: Lives saved using this equipment now exceed 178, a significant statistic. This is a wonderful low-cost intervention with incredible impact.

Beach cameras: I’ve been into the NSRI Emergency Operations Centre on occasion to watch the beach cameras – it’s worth a visit. The power of oversight vision, the dynamics of the beach environment and the dynamic deployment of resources all jump out at you. The question is: how do we scale this initiative economically? One of our operators saved another life recently by identifying someone in trouble in a rip current!

Fleet and base buildings

Capital Projects always take more time than expected, yet we’ve done well in both base and boat construction this year and maintain a high level of quality.

In St. Francis Bay, Station 21’s base building is complete; hydraulics are working but need to be formally commissioned. Station 3 (Table Bay) is operational minus a boat house door; Station 6 (Gqeberha) has finally gone ahead with environmental approvals; Station 40 Alpha (Cape Vidal) and Station 43 (Port Nolloth) are operational, and Station 36 (Oyster Bay) has been formally opened.

Our seventh new Offshore Rescue Craft (ORC) is in the mould, while a 10m Gemini RIB for Agulhas is complete and will be commissioned in early 2024. Our fleet is in good shape!

We now have a remarkable number of JetRIBs (36) in the fleet. These ground-breaking small rescue craft are more environmentally friendly, manoeuvrable and safer (boats with propellers can’t be used in flooding conditions because of debris in the water). There is a while to go before we completely eliminate propellers on small craft but we're nearly there.

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