City of Kelowna won't reinstate lifeguards at popular beaches as result of high regional drowning numbers

No change to lifeguard plan

This summer the Interior Health region has led the way in terms of drowning or near-drowning statistics, with an incredibly high number of call-outs compared with previous years.

Despite the increase, City of Kelowna regional director of Active Living and Culture Jim Gabriel says they have no plans to reinstate lifeguards at popular beaches or swimming spots.

"The City’s approach to our beaches is that of personal responsibility, where when you’re going to the beach, know your own ability, enjoy the beach, stay within your ability ... our effort is more around the education and the training and the prevention from that respect." 

Gabriel says although drowning numbers have been high this year, drownings at populated beaches are rare, and more often take place in the middle of the lake, near cliff jumping areas or in rivers.

"We haven’t had lifeguards on our beaches for I think nearly 40 years and that’s been proven effective, in a sense. Whenever there’s a drowning, period, that’s absolutely tragic. But they’re very rare from the beach side, so we look at that model and it’s proven effective."

He acknowledges the fact that many facilities which usually offer swimming lessons had to shut down due to COVID-19 may have impacted water safety this year, but says he's pleased they are now reopened. 

BC Injury Research and Prevention Unit director Dr. Ian Pike believes it is important to swim in areas that are both safe and supervised, either by lifeguards, or other people who are able to assist in the event things go wrong. 

"There are many, many members of the public who have been trained as lifesavers or lifeguards, particularly during their teenage years, and they do have some skills and abilities and I think it’s our civic duty when we have those skills and abilities to assist."

However, Pike says jumping in to 'help' someone struggling in the water without a proper lifesaving background also needs to be treated with extreme caution, to avoid a potentially even more tragic outcome. 

"That's a very strong case for why people should take some training in this regard, because they learn when it’s appropriate to jump in or not jump, and to provide assistance by other means, whether there’s a floatation device, whether there’s a long reaching pole, whether there’s any other thing that can be done to assist the person who is in the water without getting in the water yourself. That’s rule number one even for lifeguards - what can I do without getting in?"

He says as well as taking on responsibility for our own choices when in, on or around the water, it is also our responsibility to advise others of the risks if we see them getting into a situation that could cause problems. 

Keeping in mind the reality of the risks associated with the water is essential to a fun summer, says Pike. 

"No-one expects to be injured, and in this case, no-one expects to drown when they go to the beach. No one expects to drown when they go to the lake, the river, go tubing, go to the pool. The reality is though it can and it does happen, as our statistics are evidencing this year.

"Have fun, because the weather’s great and we live in the most beautiful province in the country, possibly in the world. Take advantage of it. It is a fabulous environment, but treat it with respect, treat it safely."

He also highly advocates the use of a lifejacket, or personal flotation device, even for people with good swimming abilities. 

"If you’re in, on and around the water and you go in beyond your capabilities or you end up in water that you didn’t expect to be in, then this thing will keep you at the surface. Regrettably if you’re knocked unconscious, if you hit your head, a lifejacket will roll you face up and support you at the surface and your airway is clear of water."

In 2019, there were a total of 74 drownings, near-drownings and water incidents in the Interior Health region.

This year alone, data collected up till mid-August shows a total of 69 such incidents for the Interior Health region, with another four and a half calendar months left to account for. 

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