‘Almost all drownings are preventable’, so a new coalition works to fill water safety gaps | TBEN News

Eminetra Canada

With a shortage of lifeguards and the pandemic limiting swimming lessons, a new drowning prevention group in Ontario wants to educate people who go to beaches about water safety.

Briar McCaw and MaryKate Townsend formed the Elgin County Drowning Prevention Coalition, in partnership with organizations in the southwestern region of Ontario, after noting a gap in water safety knowledge.

They founded the Elgin County Drowning Prevention Coalition and worked with organizations in the region to improve water education for children, seniors, those with language barriers and migrant farm workers.

Both live and work on the water in Elgin County and wanted to do something to provide education for those especially at risk of drowning, including children, seniors, those with language barriers and migrant farm workers.

“People don’t always understand that open water is a lot different than even a backyard pool,” says McCaw, who has taught swimming in Elgin County for five years and is a lifeguard in Port Stanley.

Lifeguard and swim instructor Briar McCaw is part of the duo leading the coalition to improve water safety awareness in Elgin County. (Submitted by Briar McCaw)

In Ontario, 51 people have drowned this year, according to the Lifesaving Society.

In June, a 24-year-old farm worker from Guatemala died in hospital after a possible drowning in Lake Erie.

We could bring that song [of drownings] really to almost zero if people practice safe behavior around the water.– Barbara Byers, Life Saving Society

McCaw said she often sees beach swimmers struggling after going too far or children out of reach of their parents. She said knowing how to swim isn’t enough, but water safety should include knowing pool and beach rules and boating safety.

“These aren’t new messages. It’s just a matter of making sure we’re clear about how it’s spreading,” said Townsend, who is also a boat insurance company.

“We’re really just trying to focus in our own backyard. That’s where we want to make the biggest difference.”

Coalition member MaryKate Townsend says water safety extends beyond lakes to swimming pools and bathtubs, and wants to see more education to protect vulnerable groups. (Submitted by MaryKate Townsend)

Townsend wants to see more near-drowning data in Elgin County, which has about 100 miles of shoreline, to help identify gaps in community water safety knowledge.

She believes collecting that data will help identify the target groups most at risk and what can be done, such as creating signs in different languages.

Townsend has learned from similar coalitions in Ontario and plans to expand the work to other regions.

A lifeguard holds a swim buoy as he overlooks Breton Beach on Quebec’s Lac Philippe in June. One of the organizers of a new coalition to prevent drowning in Ontario says a shortage of lifeguards in general is not helping water safety efforts. (Michel Aspirot/TBEN)

“Almost all drownings are preventable,” said Barbara Byers, senior researcher at the Lifesaving Society. “We could really bring that number down to almost zero if people practice safe behavior around the water.”

Risk factors include being a weak or non-swimmer, not wearing a flotation device, swimming alone or drinking alcohol, according to the Lifesaving Society’s 2020 drowning report.

“It is within the control of the public to be aware of drowning risks and to ensure they have the skills, training and focus to practice safe behavior,” she said.

“If we did that, our numbers could be very, very, very low.”

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