The cost of saving lives

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Shane Edwards taking Samantha Harding through rigorous IRB training at Port Waikato's Sunset Beach. Photograph: Samantha Coughlan
Shane Edwards taking Samantha Harding through rigorous IRB training at Port Waikato's Sunset Beach. Photograph: Samantha Coughlan

Easter Monday marked the last day of patrol for Port Waikato’s Sunset Beach lifeguard service – but the guards aren’t packing up yet.

The volunteer lifeguards at Sunset Beach have been patrolling every weekend since last October, and although the season has come to an end, the training continues in preparation for next season.

Port Waikato is a popular spot for surfers and beach goers. The location’s black sand and rolling dunes are a huge attraction for adventurers of the West Coast. But with the increase in popularity comes an increase in the number of people getting into trouble in the water.

The 2014-15 season saw Sunset Beach lifeguards carry out 22 rescues. That’s twice as many people who needed saving than last season.

To cope with the increase in rescues, Sunset Beach club captain, Shane Edwards, believes in being as skilled as possible for the job. Edwards leads a group of 15-20 guards from the Sunset Beach Surf Club through IRB (Inflatable Rescue Boat) training every Sunday. The guards will soon gain their licenses to crew and operate the IRBs, meaning more will be qualified to assist in rescue situations.

He says that navigating the specially designed inflatable boats through rough surf is risky business. “It isn’t for everyone, but it’s the most effective at saving people in the water,” he says.

Lifeguards need to also ensure that they can get themselves out of sticky situations, such as if an IRB flips.

Edwards says that a flipped IRB can be a difficult situation to recover. “Especially on West Coast beaches where surf can reach heights of 4 metres,” he says.

In such a situation, after being catapulted out of the IRB, the guards need to be able to swim back to the IRB, climb on top of it (while it’s upside down), locate a special rope on one of the sides, flip it back upright (while being pummeled by large waves), then surf and steer the boat back to shore without the use of the motor.

Edwards describes the role of a lifeguard as being “dangerous and physically demanding”. But, he sees them as being a crucial part of water safety and rescue in NZ and it leaves him wondering why the Government gives little financial support to Surf Life Saving New Zealand (SLSNZ).

“Because it’s volunteer work, training and up-skilling guards can be a bit of a financial struggle,” adds Edwards. “But how do you put a price on life?

“I think it is wrong that Surf Life Saving isn’t recognised as the important service that it is. Each year, the number of people who are saved, the first aid administered and the searches carried out for missing people, is huge. More people would be saved if it was more recognised and supported.”

Edwards’ group won’t be paid for the hours of extra training they put in. Or for the travel costs to get to the beach. Or for the hours spent in searches, which are often continued after hours and during the off-season period.

SLSNZ does offer courses where guards can enroll and up-skill to better equip themselves in rescue situations; but, the fees for such courses are not funded. If a guard wants to better prepare themselves for saving someone’s life then they need to pay the fees out of their own pocket, or fundraise through their club.

Edwards says, “It costs a lot of money to attend courses but if the money was there then more of our life guards could up skill. The better trained the guard, the better they will be able to save someone’s life.”

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