Between the Flags: Help our lifeguards to stay afloat this summer

Sunday, 29 December 2019

Thousands of volunteers give up their time to keep our beaches safe. Last summer no one died between the flags as a result. 

By: Elizabeth Binning
Chief of staff, NZ Herald

This summer NZME is helping Surf Life Saving to help save lives. The charity relies on the goodwill of thousands of volunteers, fundraising, grants and sponsorship to keep our beaches patrolled. Here's your chance to help raise money for new equipment and lifeguard training.

By the end of summer there's a very real chance a handful of people who went to the beach to enjoy a day in the sun and surf won't come home.

Based on our previous track record many of them will be young men who overestimated their ability and underestimated the risks that comes with swimming in New Zealand waters.

Some will be heroes who jumped in to save someone but it cost them their own life in the process.

Hundreds of others will be pulled from the sea by lifeguards after getting caught in a rip, swept out in rough conditions or just being too exhausted to get back to shore.

It's a sad reality but for a small country, we have an incredibly high drowning rate compared to other countries in the OECD.

Last summer 16 people died at our beaches, but thanks to the tireless efforts of nearly 5000 lifeguards just over 700 lives were saved. None of the drownings happened between the flags.

Those rescues were made by guards who gave up not only their time but often forked out for uniforms and equipment, paid for fuel and food or spent countless hours out fundraising to keep their club running - it has cost them personally to keep us safe.

Surf Life Saving doesn't receive any government funding. It relies on good will of volunteers, fundraising and support from local body authorities.

But, in an age where 3.5 million people visit our beaches every year and the public expectation that someone will be there to keep them safe grows, good will isn't enough anymore.

That's where NZME wants to help this summer with the launch of a fundraising campaign that will see money go back to local clubs to help save lives.

Surf Life Saving NZ chief executive Paul Dalton said it costs nearly $22m to keep the charity afloat every year, nearly half of which is operating costs for the country's 74 clubs.

"The consequences are that you are just really short-term thinking because you don't know from year to year what your future is going to be, you have always got one eye looking over your shoulder."

"You put a lot of energy into your day to day survival which could otherwise be used to try and save lives."

The wider water safety sector has been working with the Government to try and secure funding but it's been a long and ongoing process.

"We are looking for a significant contribution, otherwise it doesn't change the situation from where we are now," said Dalton. "Whether it comes across that spectrum remains to be seen."

It is hoped that process is close to a resolution but the ministers involved say they don't comment on any bids for funding.

The lack of funding has meant some clubs have struggled to pay bills.

"We have had situations where clubs have got very close to the wind and not been able to pay their bills for a long period of time and they have been very shaky but we have been lucky that they haven't fallen over completely, I guess that's a sign of the support that the clubs get in their community."

Surf Live Saving Chief Executive Paul Dalton says it costs about $22m each year to keep the charity afloat.

"When they really get to the wall there's always someone who has been willing to help them out, but that's not ideal and it puts a lot of pressure on people - it's not an enjoyable experience".

Dalton said the charity is competing for funding regardless of whether it comes from fundraising, applying for grants or sponsorship. Money from some traditional sources like gaming trusts is also becoming limited as the number of pokie machines reduce in communities.

"For a charitable sector it's kinda dog eat dog. You are out there competing for every cent that you get and that's the reality of it. Every year gets harder."

In the interim the clubs rely heavily on the volunteers and support of their communities.

Local body councils usually pitch in to help fund paid lifeguards for the week days during the peak of the summer holidays. But, all weekend work and the wider life saving season - Labour Weekend until Easter - is covered by volunteers.

A big portion of the wider costs go towards keeping clubs running - things that most people wouldn't even think about like insurance, power, rubbish collection, maintenance and first aid equipment.

"A lot of that stuff is not sexy," said Dalton. "You can go out to the public and say 'hey, we need a new IRB boat, it's currently on it's last legs' and that's easy, they will get behind it. It's pretty hard to get people motivated to fundraise for insurance."

And, in some parts of the country at higher risk of a quake or tsunami, that insurance can reach up to $20,000 a year.

Water Safety CEO Jonty Mills says the sector is working with the Government on a wider funding strategy. Photo / Hagen Hopkins

Water Safety NZ CEO Jonty Mills said participation in, on and around the water has been increasing consistently on the back of a growing and more diverse population in recent years.

"As a result, demand and expectation for water safety services has also increased and the sector is under pressure to meet that demand.

"There has been a significant increase in public profile and media focus on drowning in recent years. Part of this focus is directed towards how the sector is funded, particularly frontline rescue services, the likes of Surf Life Saving NZ and Coastguard NZ."

Mills said ministers and Government agencies have met with key water safety agencies in relation to the pressures the sector is facing.

"The Government is supportive of the sector and the important role they play in keeping people safe in, on and around the water. Government officials are working collaboratively with the water safety sector to work out the best way to ensure their long-term sustainability."

Until then NZME encourages readers to get on board and help lifeguards to keep Kiwis safe on the beach this summer.



This article was originally published by the NZ Herald on December 28, 2019.