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Water safety in Australia

27 Nov, 2023

By Swim Australia

No measure can ever guarantee that children are safe in, on and around water. It is only human for adults to sometimes lapse in their supervision of children in the home or while out and about. Children can and do find ways over fences, and even those who have had swimming lessons can still drown. For this reason the SwimSAFER message promotes the application of various layers to protect children from drowning - if one layer ‘fails’ then there is another behind it that may save their life.

The layers of protection are:

  • Be aware
  • Be secure
  • Be confident
  • Be prepared All the layers of protection need to be employed at the one time to ensure optimal water safety.

Layer 1 – Be aware

SwimSAFER advocates constant supervision by a competent adult as the single most critical factor in drowning. Royal Life Saving Society Australia report that “the lack of direct adult supervision is the main factor in 70% of toddler drowning deaths”.

Correct supervision entails:

  • Constant visual contact
  • Being within arm’s reach of a non-swimmer and under 5’s
  • Not being distracted by anything e.g. ringing phones and doorbells
  • Being ready to respond quickly

Who is supervising?

When children are around water, accompanying adults must know who is responsible for direct supervision. Children have drowned at aquatic venues because an adult has mistakenly thought another adult was supervising.

What about groups of swimmers?

Where there is a group of children involved with the water, enough competent adult supervisors need to be appointed. The adults who are supervising must be vigilant water watchers, and must never leave their ‘post’ until replaced by another competent adult.

Did you know that children drowned last year despite pool fences, ‘supervision’ by older children, swimming and water safety lessons and flotation devices? These are not substitutes for constant supervision by a competent adult. A competent adult should be able to affect a rescue.

Layer 2 – Be secure

As proper supervision relies on people, it is never 100% reliable. There will be times when caregivers are unable to actively supervise children every minute of the day. This is why barriers need to be in place to lessen the chances of children getting to the water hazard. Where possible, the water hazard should be removed (e.g. empty wading pools when not in use and put them away). Where it is not possible to remove the water hazard it should be fenced or blocked. For home pools, this means a pool fence that meets the relevant government requirements, at the very least. Key points to maximise barrier protection:

  • The pool must be fully isolated from the house by a four-sides complying fence.
  • Self-closing and self-latching gates are used
  • The fence and gate are checked regularly to ensure they are in good working order.

Children, however, can climb fences. Children as young as 2 years old, have drowned in backyard pools after using chairs, bins, pot plants, eskies etc., to boost themselves up to open the gate or climb over. Ensure that there are no items in the yard that children could drag over and use to climb the fence. Outdoor furniture must be secured or too heavy for a child to move.

Props which hold open a gate as a parent works in the yard, have also lead to drowning. Never prop open gates – a child slipping through or forgetting to remove the prop can easily lead to tragedy.

Please note: all too often, when parents have bought a new house with a pool – or started renting one – they have mistakenly believed that the pool fence and gate are in good working order and/or compliant with government regulations. Sadly, such an assumption has contributed to tragic consequences. New owners or renters should demand a Certificate of Compliance … and inspect the fence and gate for possible non-compliance anyway.

Did you know that a simple way to test if a gate is self-closing and self-latching is to see if it swings freely to close and latch from any open position?

Layer 3 – Be confident

Being able to swim well is one of the greatest gifts that can be bestowed upon a child – especially in Australia.

For young children, the basic swimming and water safety skills include:

  • Water familiarization, where small children explore and become comfortable in water environments, developing a respect for the water Gaining confidence through various water activities which include and lead into safe entries and exits, breath control, submersions, floating, propulsion with arms and legs, turning and backfloating
  • Developing the ‘strokes’ so that your child can efficiently cover much greater distances. The whole ‘learn to swim’ experience should be positive; free from fear of force, with a focus of skill acquisition and safety around aquatic environments.
  • As your child gets older, the chances are that they will be exposed to potentially hazardous water situations that will require them to be ‘stronger’ swimmers. Swim Australia recommends that children are able to reasonably comfortably complete a 400m swim before they are deemed to be able to swim well. As this ability is developed, they should also be learning a variety of rescue skills.

Combined with learning the physical skills, the child is developing parallel water safety knowledge.

This ranges from knowing not to go near the pool unless with an adult through to swimming between the flags when at the beach.

Please note: no matter how well your child can swim, they are never safe around water. There is no such thing as ‘drown-proof’ or ‘water-safe’.

  • Water temperature – a sudden immersion in cold water can result in ‘cold shock’ which may lead to deep gasping, panic and inhalation of water. Even a child who can swim, can drown in the first 2-3 minutes due to cold shock
  • Turbulent water – children who are used to swimming in still water can panic if the water is choppy or swirling. Panic can easily cause a child to forget all of their swimming skills and go under
  • Clothing – wet clothes are extremely heavy and can add an extra 20-25% of a child’s body weight. Clothed swimming practice in lessons is supported.
  • No goggles – even the simplest thing like falling in without goggles can lead to drowning – it is very easy for children to panic, and once this happens their survival rates of an accidental fall in decrease
  • Tiring – children who are swimming well one minute, can also get tired, panic and go under quite fast, so constant supervision of children who are swimming is essential

While swimming lessons do not substitute for proper supervision, learning to swim can make a huge difference if your child accidentally falls in.

Did you know that the over use of floatation devices (e.g. inflatable arm bands) can give children a dangerous false sense of ability, taking away their respect for deep water and their respect for deep water and their self preservation. When the devices are removed, children often forget they are not wearing them, and leap into the water only to sink straight to the bottom. Although they may have a limited place in teaching and recreational settings, they must not be relied upon and are not a substitute for supervision. Swim Australia recommends periods of ‘floatie-free’ time while swimming if you choose to use floatation devices.

Layer 4 – Be prepared

In immersion incidents, every second counts. Having an emergency action plan in place can reduce panic and save vital time. Consider the following:

  • If a child is missing, check the pool and other water hazards first. Seconds count!
  • Have a phone poolside for emergency use only

In the case of an emergency, dial 000 … or 112 from mobile phones. The operator will ask you some important question, including:

  • The address where the ambulance is required
  • What the problem is
  • How many people are injured
  • The patient’s age
  • The patient’s gender
  • If the patient is conscious
  • If the patient is breathing
  • The operator may provide you with advice to assist the patient while you are waiting for the ambulance
  • It is important that you do not hand up until the operator tells you to. You may have to hold the line while an ambulance is dispatched If you haven’t already done so, revise, refresh or enroll yourself in a Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) course so you are prepared in case of an emergency. CPR accreditation is current for a year.

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