CANADA “Drowning is preventable,” which is why this Elgin County...

“Drowning is preventable,” which is why this Elgin County coalition is working to close water safety gaps.

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Beach in Port Stanley, Ontario, July 2020. The newly formed Elgin County Drowning Prevention Coalition aims to improve the education of children, the elderly, people facing language barriers and migrant farm workers. (Colin Butler/CBC)

With a shortage of lifeguards and a pandemic limiting swimming lessons, Ontario’s new drowning prevention group aims to educate people heading to the beaches about water safety.

Briar McCaw and Mary-Kate Townsend founded the Elgin County Drowning Prevention Coalition, working with organizations in southwestern Ontario, after noticing a gap in water safety knowledge.

They founded the Elgin County Drowning Prevention Coalition, working with organizations in the region to improve the education of children, the elderly, people facing language barriers, and migrant agricultural workers in the water sector.

Both live and work on the water in Elgin County and wanted to do something to help educate those at particular risk of drowning, including children, the elderly, people facing language barriers and migrant farm workers.

“People don’t always realize that open water is very different even from a backyard pool,” said McCaw, who has taught swimming in Elgin County for five years and works as a lifeguard in Stanley.

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

According to the Life Saving Society, 51 people have drowned in Ontario this year.

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

We could bring this number [of drownings] in fact, almost to zero if people practice safe behavior in the water.– Barbara Byers, Life Saving Society

McCaw said she often sees beach swimmers struggling after going too far, or children out of their parents’ reach. She said it’s not enough to be able to swim, but water safety should also include knowledge of pool and beach rules, as well as boating safety.

“These are not new messages. You just have to make sure we communicate them clearly,” said Townsend, who is also a boat insurance underwriter.

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

Coalition member Mary-Kate Townsend says water safety extends beyond lakes to pools and baths and wants to see more education to protect vulnerable groups. (Presented by MaryKate Townsend)

Townsend wants more data on drowning incidents in Elgin County, which has about 100 kilometers of coastline, to help identify water safety knowledge gaps in the community.

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

Townsend has learned a lot from similar coalitions in Ontario and wants to see the work spread to other regions.

A lifeguard holds a swim buoy while watching Breton Beach on Lake Philippe in Quebec in June. One of the organizers of Ontario’s new drowning prevention coalition says the lack of lifeguards overall is not helping water safety efforts. (Michelle Aspiro/CBC)

“Almost all drownings are preventable,” says Barbara Byers, senior fellow at the Life Saving Society. “We could bring that number down to almost zero if people practiced water safety behaviors.”

According to the Life Saving Society’s 2020 Report on Drowning, risk factors include being weak or unable to swim, not having a swimming device, swimming alone, or drinking alcohol.

“The public can monitor the risks of drowning and make sure they have the skills, training and focus on safe behavior,” she said.

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

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