Safety first at the pool

After two policemen drowned last week, swimming pools and safety measures have come under scrutiny.
Stephen Prins reports, Pic by Sanka Vidanagama

Dressed in full police uniform, complete with white gloves, Constable Asanka Cruz lay at rest in his home in Thimbirigasyaya, as family and friends gathered around his coffin. His mother kept asking, “Was there no one around to save my son? How could there have been no one to save him?”

Sadly, no one was close enough to notice that two young men were in difficulty in the far, deep end of the Police Swimming Pool in Narahenpita, on the afternoon of Friday, July 24. When the bodies of Asanka Cruz, 30 years, and his friend Dilaka Wickremage, 22 years, were recovered from the bottom of the pool, at about 4.30 p.m., it was already too late. Both were rushed across the road to Lanka Hospitals, where they were pronounced dead.

It is assumed that Asanka, who could swim, had got into difficulty while attempting to help Dilaka, who could not swim. There were no lifeguards on duty at the pool.

While the two constables were in difficulty, swimming classes for police personnel and their families were going on as usual at the other, shallow end.

Ironically, more than 1,000 constables have been trained in life-saving techniques at this very swimming pool. Once trained and certified, the constables are sent to other parts of the country to serve as lifeguards. Police lifeguards are posted at popular bathing spots, such as the Mount Lavinia beach, in Colombo, and Kirinda, on the southeast coast. They also serve at special times of the year, when thousands of pilgrims crowd religious places like Anuradhapura and Kataragama, and hundreds go to cool off in tanks and rivers. In times of flooding, police lifeguards are dispatched to rescue residents stranded by flood waters.

Safety measures should be enforced at all swimming venues, says Julian Bolling, Director of the Rainbow Swimming Academy.

Up to the day of the tragedy at the Police Swimming Pool, no lifeguards were put on regular duty to keep an eye on swimmers and learners. Unlike club or school swimming pools, the police pool is private and relatively quiet. It is used in the mornings for training by the police swimming team, and in the afternoons and evenings by police officers and their families. At its busiest, the pool rarely has more than 15 to 20 occupants – good swimmers training for competitions or learners with coaches who are experienced swimmers.

Last week’s double tragedy reveals a serious lack of safety measures at swimming pools in the country. The only pools manned by full-time lifeguards are the hotel swimming pools. “What happened last week surely indicates a need for a law to enforce safety at swimming venues,” said Julian Bolling, Director of the Rainbow Swimming Academy, which runs daily swimming classes for children at the pool at the Nondescript Cricket Grounds (NCC), in Colombo 7. “It is clearly time that all pools – at schools, clubs and hotels – had a mandatory lifeguard system in place. This should be made law, if it isn’t already.”

The Rainbow Swimming Academy has 14 full-time swimming coaches, all of whom are certified by the Lifesaving Association of Sri Lanka in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR.

All classes come under Mr. Bolling’s direct supervision. CPR involves artificial respiration, or mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing, and chest compressions. CPR can help keep alive someone who has stopped breathing, or whose heart has stopped beating, and is used in emergencies such as near-drowning, accidents, poisoning, electrocution injury, and smoke inhalation.
In the West, doctors, nurses, paramedics, lifeguards, firefighters, and police officers are trained in CPR. Ideally, teachers and childcare workers should also be familiar with CPR.

Once upon a time, the presence of a lifeguard at a swimming pool in this country would have been considered “a good thing”. Now, it would have to be described as “an absolute necessity.”
While everyone knows a lifeguard should be around wherever there are bathers and swimmers, whether at pools or at the seaside, not everyone thinks of insisting that a lifeguard be present.
In developed countries, swimming pools have permanent contingents of lifeguards.

If you visit a public swimming pool in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul or Tokyo, you will see at least four lifeguards on duty – one each at the shallow and deep ends, and two facing each other at the midpoint of the pool. They sit in elevated chairs, wear a uniform of sleeveless shirt and shorts, and are ready to dive in at the first hint of someone getting into difficulty. Swimmers are reassured by their very still, very focused, hawk-eyed presence.

Every little while the lifeguards will get off their perches and switch seats so they have a change of viewpoint. This way, they maintain their concentration.

That Colombo is not Singapore or Hong Kong is no excuse not to have fully trained and capable lifeguards on duty during swimming hours, Mr. Bolling says.

The former Olympic swimmer adds that safety measures at swimming pools should include both manpower and equipment. “It’s more than a matter of having lifeguards on duty – you must also have the tools for saving lives,” he says.

He points to a wall facing the pool. Strung up is a long aluminium rod with a curved hook at the end.
“That’s a shepherd’s crook. It’s a lifesaving device. You use it when someone is in trouble in the water. You hold it out and the victim can grab hold of it, or you can wrap it around the person and pull him or her out of the water. “The only time you jump into the water to help someone in difficulty is when that person is smaller or slighter than you, like a child.

If it’s someone your size or strength, you are in grave danger. Because once you get within grabbing distance, that person can drag you down with him. This, most likely, is what happened at the Police Swimming Pool. Both victims would have been physically equal, or close. Never jump into the water if you are going to rescue someone your size or bigger.”

The presence of lifeguards at school swimming pools would have to be considered a given.
There is always a lifeguard on duty when swimming classes are in progress at the Royal College Swimming Pool. “This rule was set by the Royal College Aquatic Union Club,” said freelance coach Amarapala de Zoysa. “The pool is popular with families, and parents are happy to see a lifeguard around.”

On hearing about the Police Swimming Pool tragedy, Jan Prins, head of the Aquatic Research Laboratory at the University of Hawaii, expressed his condolences and added that the tragedy was “absolutely preventable”.

“Pool drowning is fully preventable,” he said, speaking from Hawaii. “It requires a two-pronged approach.

” Since it is not practical to maintain a lifeguard system 24/7, and even less practical to shut a pool down unless a guard is present, the following two guidelines are usually the norm.

“First, make a distinction between recreation swimming time and organised swimming training. Recreation swimming time is when anyone can use the pool, and during this time you ensure that one or two lifeguards are present. This means no casual swimming without supervision.
“Second, when the pool is used by teams for organised training, the coaches and staff assume responsibility. Mandate that all pool personnel – coaches, everyone – are certified in life saving and CPR.”

Dr. Prins, who has been involved in swimming pool safety for 41 years, and has been the President of the Hawaii Lifeguard Association since 1999, said that if he was associated with the Police organisation in Sri Lanka, he would, in the light of the recent tragedy, immediately implement the policies with regard to pool usage for recreation swimming and organised training.

“In addition, I would take the opportunity, tragic though the circumstances, to push for a comprehensive swimming skill acquisition programme. “Make swimming mandatory for all police personnel. They should be able to swim a minimum 500 metres of freestyle, and be able to tread water [stay afloat in an upright, vertical position with the use of foot and hand movements] for at least 10 minutes.

Drowning is an alarmingly common occurrence in Sri Lanka. The surrounding seas and lagoons and the inland lakes, tanks, rivers and streams provide an abundance of opportunities for sporting in water – and for drowning.

Statistics show that there are two drownings every week in Sri Lanka.

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