Between the Flags: Waihi Beach Surf Life Saving Club reveals how much it really costs to save lives

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

It's becoming harder to raise money for surf lifesavers. Photo / George Novak

By: Elizabeth Binning
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.

Sometimes saving a life isn't the most challenging part of the job for Surf Life Saving - it's keeping the guards on the beach in the first place.

Few people would think about the actual running costs when they see lifeguards on patrol in their yellow and red uniforms, standing between the flags and rushing to rescue someone in IRB's with sponsors' logos on them.

There's little reason to consider anything else, like the rates and insurance for the clubhouse, the water bill from washing all the gear at the end of the day or the training that gives the lifeguards the skills to save lives.

But, those things are all part of the daily costs of providing life saving services and the money has to be found every year for the guards to stay on our beaches.

Today the Waihi Beach club open their books to reveal just how much it costs to keep a club running and how they do it without Government funding and it's becoming harder to raise money.


Last summer it cost $142,000 to keep the Waihi Beach club afloat - a cost that has increased by 27 per cent in just a few years because of hikes in things like power, insurance, water and everyday costs.

"We are subjected to every cost like every one else. Whatever has been going on in other people's households is going on in our club."

It's not only the costs that are increasing, so too is the challenge of finding funds to pay for them.

"We are finding it so much harder to get operational funding, it's just not sexy enough. You can't put a logo on it," says club chairwoman Donna Pfefferle.

Things like water never used to be an expense the club had to worry about but the council has started charging. It has added several thousands to the annual bill as lifeguards need hot showers after long days in the sun and water. All their gear also needs to be washed down daily as the sand and salt can be harsh on the equipment.

"We spend a lot of money having to wash things down."

A large portion of the operational costs come from power - $10,000 last summer - keeping the books, regulatory costs and levies and building maintenance. They are expenses many people wrongly assume are wiped by generous councils or services providers.

Unfortunately that's not the case and everything from rates to rubbish collection must be paid for.

"There's a lot of very generous people that will help us buy a new boat because they understand how important it is - and we are very, very fortunate at Waihi Beach because we get a lot of support. The hardest part is we only have one grant provider that focuses on operational costs.

"Each grant provider has their own trustees' goals. Often it's not around 'oh, let's pay for someone's electricity'."

Pfefferle said there has been a big focus during the past five years on getting the building and clubrooms into top shape. It might seem insignificant to the public but she said lifeguards were often in the heat for up to eight hours a day and so it was important they had decent facilities to cook a meal, shower or put their feet up during their break.

"We want them to stay at the club over Xmas. We are so busy and we have people on the beach all hours of the day and night, we have a call-out squad, we want them to be handy right through that peak Xmas period and to get them there you really do need to provide."


Like all clubs around the country, Waihi Beach relies heavily on volunteers - for summer beach patrols through to fundraising throughout the year. Most are unpaid and there is a personal cost to each of them, in terms of time and financially.

The club has 108 qualified lifeguards and 25 rookies who gave up 6000 hours of their time between Labour Weekend and Easter to staff the beaches. During that time they saved 45 lives.

Each year the club pays to refresh their training, things like CPR and tube rescues, which are essential parts of the job.

In addition 60 other volunteers helped with things like running the board, coaching and helping fundraise. These extra volunteers give up roughly 280 hours of their time each month and are often continuing on through winter to help prepare for the upcoming season.

Waihi Beach employs some paid surf coaches over summer, one person for the administration side of the club and another person part-time to help with cleaning, maintenance and events, and seasonal staff to help run a kitchen and bar at the club. They are paid a minimum wage - which comes out of fundraising and grants. Funds raised in the kitchen and bar go back to the club and help pay for maintenance.

Pfefferle said each lifeguard pays $30-$60 for an annual membership fee and $155 for their uniform. They also pay for things like petrol and food each time they are on duty and if they want things like flippers, hi-vis vests or other swimwear they must provide it themselves.

Not only do lifeguards give up their time, they also pay to save lives, something Pfefferle says is remarkable.

"There's something in the heart of a volunteer that is just so outrageous because they are not only giving up the freedom of their weekends, their holidays, they are investing their time in training, standing in the hot sun - or freezing cold conditions - day after day and are very prepared to put themselves in the water to go and save someone's life. They are exceptional people."

Waihi Beach volunteers performed nearly 100 first aid treatments last summer - all of which cost money.

First aid equipment varies from minor things like bandaids or jellyfish treatments through to trauma kits with defibrillators, which cost $5500. The club has three kits.

"If we have a season of people being stung by Jelly fish we have a special liquid and you pour it on it but we have to pay for it so if we have a bad season our bills are higher."

Defibrillator batteries cost up to $500, a pack of coldpacks is just over $40 and fingertip pulse check for oxygen is $120. Then there's oxygen masks, which cost $5 each, or crepe bandages, which cost up to $13 each.

Few people would think about the tiny bandages to cover a cut - but they cost just over a dollar each and it's an expense that quickly adds up over a busy season.

Last summer basic first aid supplies cost the club $3400, an increase of 85 per cent since 2016.


Rescue equipment is deemed as the more "sexy" items that people are quick to donate for but the maintenance and day-to-day running costs are often forgotten.

Pfefferle said the club has been very vigilant in recent years in managing servicing and reducing those costs but they still add up.

"Even if you are really careful and really good with your gear and really look after it if you are using it all the time you are going to have maintenance. "

Waihi Beach Surf Club member James Lloyd. Photo / George Novak

That gear includes 10 new rescue tubes every year, new motors for the IRBs and replacing one of four IRBs every year.

She said finding funding or sponsorship is easier than trying to repair old equipment.

"We don't have money for repairs so we can't have old equipment. It's unreliable, but if we have to find money for repairs we don't have it."

The club also replaces one or two radios a year.
"They are meant to be in a watertight bag but there's no such thing really. They are on a life jacket being thrown around the ocean, they are in the water, so we have to replace our radios on a rotation as well because they don't last long."


The club relies on grant providers, charitable trusts, support from Surf Life Saving NZ, sponsorship, fundraising, donations, hiring out the clubrooms and membership fees.

Membership fees generated just over $20,000 last summer.

Members also participate in an annual fundraising drive, the latest of which happened this weekend.

Pfefferle said "raising enough funds every season to keep the lights on" is the biggest challenge.

"Operational costs rise every season even when we are very careful with our spending and try to save costs.


"The public assume that all surf lifeguard clubs are local or central government funded. They do not realise we are a charity, therefore they often don't make donations."

She said the public are generally extremely grateful and they often have people coming back - even years later - to say thank you.

"People say if you want money you can find it but I think the amount of energy needed to find that money has increased."

She said this means members are often spending more time "focusing on not how we do our job but where do we find the money to do our job".

"It is what it is, I don't dwell on it, I realise we are an essential service, not an emergency service. NZ is based on that Kiwi attitude of I'll help. So I don't put any pressure on any particular agency or anyone else to say it's their responsibility. I just think if the public understood more [about the running costs] then I think we might find other forms of income streams available for us."



This article was originally published in the NZ Herald on December 31, 2019.