With lifeguards in short supply and the pandemic restricting swimming lessons, a new Ontario drowning prevention group wants to educate people who go to beaches about water safety.
Briar McCaw and MaryKate Townsend founded the Elgin County Drowning Prevention Coalition, which works with organizations in the Southwest Ontario region, after noticing a water safety knowledge gap.
They formed the Elgin County Drowning Prevention Coalition, which works with organizations in the area 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 educate those most at risk of drowning, including children, the elderly, those with language barriers and migrant farm workers.
“People don’t always understand that open water is very different than a backyard pool,” said McCaw, who has taught swimming in Elgin County for five years and is a lifeguard in Port Stanley.
According to the Lifesaving Society, 51 people have drowned across Ontario this year.
In June, a 24-year-old farm worker from Guatemala died in hospital following an accident possible drowning in Lake Erie.
We could bring this number [of drownings] really down to almost zero when 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 is not enough, but water safety should also include knowledge of pool and beach rules, as well as boating safety.
“This is not new news. It’s just a matter of making sure we distribute them clearly,” said Townsend, who is also an underwriter for boat insurance.
“We’re really just trying to focus on our own backyard, really. That’s where we want to make the biggest difference.”
Townsend wants to see more data on near-drownings in Elgin County, which has about 100 kilometers of shoreline, to help identify knowledge gaps related to water safety in the community.
She believes collecting this data will help identify the most vulnerable audiences and what can be done – such as creating signs in different languages.
Townsend has learned from similar coalitions in Ontario and wants the work to be expanded to other regions.
“Almost all drownings are preventable,” said Barbara Byers, a senior researcher at the Lifesaving Society. “We could really get that number down to almost zero if people practice safe waterfront behavior.”
According to the Lifesaving Society’s 2020 Drowning Report, risk factors include being a frail or non-swimmer, not wearing a flotation device, swimming alone, or drinking alcohol.
“It is the public’s responsibility to be aware of the risks of drowning 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.”