SINGAPORE: Parents should not adopt a hands-off attitude when their children attend swimming lessons, said swim safety experts as pool safety comes under the spotlight following a coroner’s inquiry into the drowning of a six-year-old girl.
In the 2017 incident, the inquiry concluded that the girl had likely encountered difficulties when she was left to swim alone in the middle of the teaching pool.
Lifeguards told CNA that the safety of a child lies in the hands of parents even if there are lifeguards or swimming instructors present.
Parents would be able to focus their attention on their child the whole time, unlike coaches who could have up to 10 students under their charge, said Mr Patrick Lee, a lifeguard and swimming coach.
Instead, parents sometimes tend to be pre-occupied with their handphones, chat with other parents, and even leave the swimming complex altogether, said Mr Lee who has more than 20 years experience.
"Swimming lessons should never be thought of as safe as childcare, because incidents can happen within seconds," he said.
The constant watch is necessary because “silent” drowning is common, he said. Parents expect their children to scream if they are in danger, but this might not happen when they are in the water, Mr Lee said.
“When you are struggling for air, it is natural not to be able to scream.”
Mr Lau Sheng Yang, who conducts lifesaving courses, said parents form the first safety layer. They should be sitting near enough the pool to have an unobstructed view of their child.
“The duty lifeguard and swimming instructor have more people to keep watch over and are never able to keep constant and uninterrupted watch over everyone,” said Mr Richard Tan, President of the Singapore Life Saving Society.
Parents should also remind their children not to run, push or “horseplay” with each other, a spokesperson from Swimwerks Aquatic said. They should also make sure that the child is not unwell when sending them for swimming lessons.
NUMBER ONE PRIORITY - SAFETY
The coaches said that while they run a business, pool safety is their number one priority. One way to do this is to group students according to ability, Mr Lee said.
“We have parents who want siblings to be in the same class, but one of them could have some experience, and the other one is a beginner,” he said.
In these cases, he may decline to accept one of the potential students. He also keeps his group size small, taking up to six at one go, fewer than the maximum 10. While it may not be the best decision profit-wise, he is more comfortable that way, as he can manage them better and keep a more focused eye on his students, he said.
“In specific cases, the swimming instructor may need to reduce the class size further or have additional qualified assistants around,” Mr Tan said.
Mr Lau said that he makes it a point to know where exactly his students are in the pool at any one time.
“If I have left a child with a board to practise at a spot behind me, I will turn to check every 10 seconds,” he said.
He has kicked out children who are hard to control from his swimming classes in the interest of safety, Mr Lau said.
“I’d rather earn less than be unsafe,” he said.
They welcome the plan to install infrared drowning detection systems in public pools which was announced at the Commitee of Supply debates.
The system will be progressively installed at all public competition pools, with 11 pools expected to have it by April next year.
However, they stressed continued vigilance adding that parents, coaches and lifeguards should not become complacent.
INCIDENT “FURTHER STRENGTHENED” RESOLVE TO PREVENT SUCH DROWNINGS: SPORTSG
Sport Singapore (SportSG) chief executive Lim Teck Yin said that the coroner’s inquiry has “further strengthened our resolve to enhance measures to prevent such occurrences in future”.
SportSG operates 26 public swimming complexes, and the deployment of lifeguards in these pools is dependent on the size, type and layout of the pools, a spokesperson said. Generally, two duty lifeguards will man a 50-metre pool, she said.
She added that the lifeguards involved in the incident have been relieved of their duties. The swimming coach has also been relieved of lifeguarding duties.
There are rules in place for lifeguards on duty, the spokesperson said. They are not allowed to use their mobile phones or leave their duty point unless permission has been obtained and the necessary relief has been arranged. They should also refrain from indulging in unnecessary prolonged conversation with guests, she added.
In 2017, the year of the incident, Mr Lim said SportSG recorded 130 interventions where swimmers required the assistance of lifeguards.
“We are committed to providing a safe environment for our people to enjoy their active lifestyle and we want everyone to join us and play their part to eliminate preventable incidents,” he said.
To that end, surprise safety audits are regularly conducted, he said.
“We have not hesitated to discipline staff who do not comply with the policies and rules that govern the performance of their duties,” he said. At the same time, SportSG supports staff through regular training and guidance through the ActiveSG Lifeguard Academy that was set up in 2012, he added.
“These efforts continue to draw lessons learnt from all incidents, and take into account the changes in the daily activity levels and the unique setting of each swimming complex,” he said.
Safety in the pools requires a multi-pronged approach based on proper supervision by swim coaches, increasing awareness on risks of unsafe behaviours, use of technology, and lifeguards staying vigilant, he added.