October 16 - 22, 2022: Issue 558


National Water Safety Summit 2022 Review 

by Surf Life Saving Australia and Royal Life Saving Society Australia

Surf Life Saving Australia made available the National Water Safety Summit 2022 Review On October 11, 2022. 

On the 4th and 5th of August 2022, leading water safety experts and advocates from across multiple sectors gathered in Sydney to address the rising burden of fatal and non-fatal drowning across Australia at the National Water Safety Summit, coordinated by Surf Life Saving Australia and Royal Life Saving Society Australia. Surf Life Saving was well represented, and provided their insights, particularly in relation to water safety around the coast. The Summit served to reinvigorate discussion around water safety and drowning prevention following the disruptions caused by multiple national challenges including the 2019/20 bushfires, the Covid-19 pandemic, and flood crises.

After the Summit the Royal Life Saving Society Australia stated more than 200 water safety experts from across Australia and New Zealand came together for the National Water Safety Summit 2022 which was an opportunity to refocus attention on drowning prevention and the joy of swimming.

The Summit, which was led by Royal Life Saving Society – Australia and Surf Life Saving Australia, was designed around the key at-risk groups identified in the Australian Water Safety Strategy 2030.

Over two days of intense discussion, the key themes that emerged were prevention, collaboration, co-design, and the value of sharing stories. Across the conference, many smaller organisations had the opportunity to learn from each other and share their experiences.

During the Summit, the new Australian Water Safety Council website was unveiled with a new tool for community groups to upload their activities on an interactive map. The new design is in response to the bloom of locally based community groups who have responded to the need for tailored water safety solutions.

These included representatives from community programs, often formed in response to drowning deaths within specific communities. The way the programs are tailored differs, but at their core every program is about empowering people to enjoy the water safely.

One of the most inspiring presentations came from Gulidjan girl Piper Stewart, who at just 12 founded the Bambigi Indigenous swimming program after recognising many of her Indigenous peers hadn’t learned to swim because of financial barriers. Bambigi means "to swim" in Wiradjuri, Griffith's traditional Aboriginal language. More than 300 children from the region around Griffith in NSW have now benefited from the program.

The Royal Life Saving Society Australia reported in its August news;

'There were sombre moments as we heard from families and friends who had lost loved ones to drowning, both in immediately fatal incidents, and non-fatal drowning where children survived the initial incident with lifelong disability and significantly shorted lifespan. We remember and honour their loss. It was a powerful reminder of why water safety is so important.

The program also focused on accessibility and heard about some terrific initiatives to make safe places to swim accessible to everyone, with investment into harbour and river swimming locations.

The aquatic industry was well represented, with discussions about their social, economic and health benefits and their role as hubs for communities. There are more than 1300 publicly-owned aquatic facilities in Australia contributing to physical activity levels and water safety education.

Core issues of concern raised included the affects of COVID-19 on children learning to swim, and the ongoing workforce pressures after many young people were forced to leave the industry over the past two years. Swim schools are reporting significant wait times for learn-to-swim classes, as they struggle to recruit swimming and water safety teachers.

It was also an opportunity for those in government with responsibility for swimming and water safety to come together and discuss how different states and territories are tackling the problem of getting children who missed out during COVID-19 back into water safety.

Researchers from leading universities and the peak water safety bodies presented on new and ongoing research projects, including looking at the factors which disrupted active supervision of children, leading to drowning deaths.

Chair of the Australian Water Safety Council, Justin Scarr thanked all the water safety experts who attended, including researchers, practitioners, people with lived experience, government, aquatic industry and not-for-profit organisations.'

The following is a summary of key insights and takeaways from the National Water Safety Summit. 

Australia, having one of the lowest drowning rates globally, is recognised as a world leader in drowning prevention. However, the present threat of a warming climate will pose new challenges to our existing water safety systems and infrastructure. Andrew Gissing, CEO of Natural Hazards Research Australia, discussed how rising sea levels, paired with the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, will lead to greater risks of people engaging with hazardous aquatic environments, increasingly due to coastal erosion, inundation, and flooding events. In addition, as the number of hotter days increases each year, visitation to coastal and inland waterways is expected to increase as people attempt to cool off. Together, these factors create a landscape where the risk of drowning in Australia is increasing as a result of greater engagement with aquatic environments. 

Seeking to promote, and ultimately address, these rising concerns, the summit emphasised the importance of swimming lessons and water safety education. The need for these services has become an increasing concern during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has resulted  in two years of disrupted service distribution and reduced access for many Australians. Ensuring equitable access, particularly for Indigenous populations and people living in regional and remote areas, is essential. Presenters highlighted the importance of engaging with communities at a local level in a co-design process when seeking to overcome these inequities. A successful example of this can be seen in the Bambigi swim program, initiated in 2017 by a 12-year-old Indigenous girl, Piper Stewart, a local to the area of Griffith, which has over the last 2 years supported more than 80 Indigenous children gaining access to swimming lessons. Ensuring that similar programs are developed and better supported will be integral in overcoming many of the challenges in water safety in the future. 

In the Coastal Session (AWSS2030 Places : Beaches, Oceans and Rocks) we discussed the integrated relationship between research and industry. The two are intertwined and need each other – research is more meaningful if it can be implemented, applied, and evaluated within its intended industry. Industry needs research to inform, improve and enhance practices, and researchers need industry for research findings to have longevity with long-term benefits and implications. Similarly, industry should consult and co-design projects with researchers (e.g. UNSW Beach Safety Research Group working in conjunction with SLSNSW, SLSA, or Local Government Agencies) – at the least to ensure that trials/investigations are conducted in such a manner to be meaningful, and to achieve intended outcomes.  

Science communication challenges were also highlighted – e.g. communication of messaging to different high-risk populations: 

  • SLSA’s Rip current campaign – an effective tool has been developed to change behaviours and attitudes of swimmers, but campaign exposure within the community was difficult due to various factors (e.g. COVID-19, messaging communication challenges and fatigue) 
  • Tourist safety – advocate for a change in approach that targets safety at multiple levels and perhaps may be more aligned with a targeted approach  
  • Safety signage can be misleading and does not always translate to other communities (e.g. CaLD) – need to engage diverse range of stakeholders for high-risk populations and co-design safety programs and campaigns. 

This session identified a clear need for novel and alternative education strategies that were community-led, community-focused, engaging and interactive, e.g. in-situ, experiential learning on the beach, and the potential for a greater incorporation of Virtual Reality technology to provide immersive experiences under safe learning conditions. The scale of these approaches though were acknowledged to have to be implemented at smaller, community-led scales, which come with a suite of different challenges (e.g. resource availability). Applied practical research and evaluation science were largely seen as the next steps for coastal safety research. 

A key example from the coastal session that explored the issue of safety message communication to culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) communities was presented by Dr Masaki Shibata (University of Adelaide) who shared his research exploring risk communication in high-risk populations. His research explored the translation of language and pictograms used in water safety signage for those born overseas and of non-English speaking backgrounds, also referred to as CaLD communities. CaLD communities are often considered to be at high-risk of drowning due to a lack of familiarity with the environment and lower participation in swimming lessons. This lack of understanding and awareness can also lead to misinterpretations of water safety signage, which in some cases, may lead to engagement in higher risk behaviours. For example, common signage instructing people to swim between the flags was misinterpreted by one individual as only swimmers were permitted between the flags and, as they themselves could not swim, they should stay out of the flagged area. This highlights the importance of engaging a broad set of people from different ethnic backgrounds when designing signage and ensuring that the signage is clearly understood across multiple languages. 

New research presented within the AWSS2030: Activities and Risk factors session also provided insights into how to better design water safety promotion campaigns and messaging for high-risk populations. Dr Hannah Calverley (Life Saving Victoria) presented her research on young adults’ involvement in alcohol influenced aquatic activity. Through her research she showed that the likelihood of young adults engaging in aquatic activities while under the influence of alcohol is the result of a complex set of interactions, between subjective norms, previous participation, and individual attitudes towards the behaviour. She suggested in her findings that future interventions should seek to improve young adults’ understanding of the risk associated with mixing alcohol and aquatic activities (as is more commonly understood in other environments such as drink driving).  Dr Calverley further highlighted the need to address misperceptions of the behaviour as socially normative and acceptable – this may be most effective if fostered at an early age before the developmental chaos of adolescence. 

Behaviours, perceptions and attitudes of participants, as well as novel strategies to better understand and reduce risk in popular aquatic activities were also discussed in this session. Presentations were given by researchers, industry, and practitioners on rock fishing, snorkelling/diving, paddling on watercraft, and boating. While some challenges were activity specific, there was a clear theme that spanned all activities. The main take away from the Activity and Risk factors session was regarding behaviour change – and a discussion regarding alternatives to achieve this as signs and fines alone just don’t work! The development and support of broad, inclusive, community-led safety programs were key – e.g. Swim Brothers, rock fishing, PaddleSafe, where the community or participants (i.e. watercraft users/paddlers, rock fishers, CaLD groups, cultural groups, etc.) nominate and promote ‘Champions’ who act as water safety leaders within their community. These Champions provide and important community link that can overcome some of the communication challenges e.g. language or cultural barriers, gender and stereotypical barriers, as well as being a real-life example of water safety knowledge and participation within a particular community – making the impossible possible.  

A dominant focus of the summit was the extent of non-fatal drowning, i.e. when an individual survives a drowning event. Non-fatal drowning events can have severe medical complications caused by hypoxic brain injury. More than 500 non-fatal drowning events resulting in hospitalisation occurred in the year 2019/20 alone (A. Mahony, Royal Life Saving Society Australia). In some instances, the injuries are catastrophic and immediately apparent, leaving the survivor with debilitating and irreversible neurological damage. In other cases, the effects may be more insidious, with the resulting harms taking years to manifest. These cases have a devastating effect on families and impose a significant burden on health and medical resources. Bringing these cases to public attention is vital to highlight the true societal burden of drowning, and in recognising drowning incidence as an urgent public health concern.  

Presentations at the summit served to provide valuable insights regarding where water safety practitioners should seek to direct future efforts. In general, to successfully address the burden of drowning and non-drowning related water injury, we need intervention to come from and be supported by both the private and public sectors and from across multiple disciplines. At the national level, there is an urgent need to shift a greater proportion of funding to disaster preparedness and mitigation. Currently, only 3% of public funding for disasters is spent on mitigation and preparedness as opposed to 97% spent on recovery. Directing a greater proportion of these funds to preparedness and mitigation would significantly reduce the risk of fatal and non-fatal drowning incidence while also serving to decrease the long-term impact of recovery for the community after a disaster event. As a highly respected national water safety authority, Surf Life Saving Australia can play a significant role in advocating for these changes. 

At localised levels, water safety interventions need to be co-designed and implemented with greater input from the communities they serve. Genuine co-design processes that involve community engagement throughout all stages of design and implementation are integral to the success of any public health intervention. Continuing open discussions and sharing stories of both success and failure in the context of water safety interventions is vital in allowing for practitioners in the water safety sector to learn and more effectively design successful implementation strategies in the future. Again, Surf Life Saving Australia can play a significant role in leading and supporting these initiatives. An example is the recent achievement of Swim Brothers as part of their ocean safety program who developed nine champions within a Sydney Muslim community – a group that experienced barriers to engage with water safety and Surf Life Saving in the same manner as broader sections of the Australian population – to become Surf Life Savers and be advocates for water safety within their community. This program represents a valuable model that can be implemented to reach, and actively engage, high-risk communities. 

One central theme across the summit was the acknowledgment of the challenges associated with behaviour change and the complexities involved (e.g. multiple interactions, between subjective norms, previous participation) and individual attitudes towards the risky behaviour (e.g. alcohol consumption). Further highlighted was the need to address misperceptions regarding unsafe or risky behaviours to be socially normative and/or acceptable. Safety interventions in general are likely to be most effective if fostered at an early age before the chaotic developmental periods. Also, one size does not fit all – programs need to be targeted towards specific population groups. This finer scale approach though can be resource heavy (i.e., expensive, challenging, and difficult to implement), but continuing to improve our understanding of risks and behaviours remains as the crucial first step.  

Finally, there remains a need to bridge the gap between research and practice in the water safety sector. The relationship between researchers and practitioners should be mutually beneficial. While research can provide valuable guidance to practitioners on the most effective intervention strategies, practitioners can provide valuable feedback to researchers as to what worked and where barriers in implementation occurred. As such, cooperative working relationship between researchers and practitioners is essential in moving the water safety field forward. 

It was so exciting to get the sector back together, and to see such a broad representation across Surf Life Saving and across water safety in general. With representatives from Surf Life Saving Australia, Surf Life Saving Queensland, Surf Life Saving South Australia, Surf Life Saving New South Wales, and Life Saving Victoria. Together we work towards the Surf Life Saving vision of no preventable deaths in Australian waters. Special thanks to Stacey Pidgeon-Wilcox (RLSSA) and the Summit working group for the delivery of such a successful and engaging event.

For their significant contribution to the Coastal, Activity and Risk factors sessions SLSA would like to thank Professor Rob Brander (UNSW), Dr Bernadette Matthews (LSV), Dr Jaz Lawes (SLSA), Professor Jeff Wilks (Tourism Safety), Shane Daw ESM (SLSA), Tony Blunden (Office of Local Government), Nick Marshall (Albatross Nippers), William Koon (UNSW), Dr Masaki Shibata (University of Adelaide), Dr Peter Kamstra (Swinburne University), Dr Hannah Calverley (LSV), Laurie Adams (Department of Transport WA), Shannon O’Brien (Sydney Harbour Kayaks), and Julia Kiss (SLSNSW) for their time and wisdom. 

SLSA would also like to acknowledge their ongoing collaboration with the National Coronial Information System (NCIS) for the review of coastal drowning and fatalities. The NCIS provide SLSA access to key information relating to these incidents. The vision of NCIS is ‘Saving lives through the power of data’ which not only aligns with SLSA’s own vision and purpose, but also the overarching aspirations of the Australian Water Safety Council and the Summit. 

Australian Water Safety Strategy 2030

Towards a Nation Free From Drowning

Each year more than 280 people die due to drowning, with many more admitted to hospital following a non‐fatal drowning incident. 41% of drowning occurs in coastal environments (beaches, ocean and rocks), 36% in rivers and lakes, and 61% outside of major cities. Males drown at a rate four times that of females and one‐year‐old toddlers record the highest drowning rate of any age.

The Australian Water Safety Strategy (AWSS) plays an essential role in National, State and Territory, and community approaches to preventing drowning and promoting safe use of the nation’s waterways and swimming pools.

It outlines priority areas where Australia’s peak water safety bodies Royal Life Saving and Surf Life Saving, and AWSC Members can work together to prevent drowning on beaches, at rivers and lakes, and in swimming pools across Australia.

In launching the Australian Water Safety Strategy, Justin Scarr, Convenor of the Australian Water Safety Council says, “The previous Australian Water Safety Strategy proved effective with the fatal drowning rate reducing by 26% over the last ten years and drowning in children aged 0‐4 years reducing by 50%, however drowning remains unacceptably high, impacting more than 280 families each year”.

This new Australian Water Safety Strategy seeks to raise awareness about non‐fatal drowning incidents, encourage communities to create local water safety plans and promote access to swimming and water safety skills for all Australians, including refugees, migrants and those living in regional areas.

“Being able to swim for fun, fitness or health is a great Australian past‐time and is a skill that is essential for drowning prevention. The Australian Water Safety Strategy seeks to help all Australians to learn swimming and water safety skills, irrespective of where they live,” Mr Scarr says.

In addition to skills, the Australian Water Safety Strategy promotes the importance of frontline water safety services, including volunteer surf lifesavers, lifeguards, and swimming instructors. The Strategy encourages extension of services, as well as innovative approaches such as the use of drones and emergency stations in remote locations.

Water safety is everyone’s responsibility and the strategy outlines what water safety organisations, councils and community members can do to help.

The Australian Water Safety Strategy 2030 identifies five priority areas which are key to reducing drowning by 50% by 2030. Supported by guiding principles and enablers, continued focus on these priorities will help us to achieve the strategy’s goal of reducing drowning and building water safe communities.

Key Findings - Australian Water Safety Strategy 2030

  • For every fatal drowning there are three non-fatal drowning incidents
  • Males drown at a rate 4 times that of females
  • One-year-old toddlers record the highest drowning rate of any age
  • Rivers and lakes account for 36% of drowning deaths
  • Coastal environments (beaches, ocean and rocks) account for 41% of drowning deaths
  • 23% of drowning deaths occur while swimming and recreating
  • 61% of drowning deaths occur outside of major cities
  • Fatal drowning rare has reduced by 26% over the last ten years
  • Child (0-4 years) fatal drowning rate has reduced by 50% over the last ten years

To stay safe around water, the Australian Water Safety Council urges all Australians to:

  • Supervise children at all times in, on and around water
  • Learn Swimming, water safety and lifesaving skills
  • Wear a lifejacket when boating, rock fishing or paddling
  • Swim at a patrolled beach between the red and yellow flags
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs around water

Download Current Strategy

To download a copy of the current Australian Water Safety Strategies, please click the link below:

Australian Water Safety Strategy 2030