Aquatic centers in the United States know the statistics: drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional death for children under the age of 14 and 10 people drown every day in this country. But what about the rest of the world? “Ninety-five percent of the world’s drowning deaths occur in low and middle income countries,” states Justin Sempsrott, M.D., Medical Director for the Starfish Aquatics Institute (SAI) and the Executive Director of Lifeguards Without Borders. “Data is hard to come by in these areas but it is believed that Africa and Southeast Asia bear the largest global burden of drowning.”
The desire to raise awareness of the drowning epidemic in other countries and then to help reduce the number of incidents has led SAI to partner with other organizations and with its own clients overseas. In the United States, SAI was a charter signatory to the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make-a-Splash initiative, a partner in its inaugural program with the Boys and Girls Club of Metropolitan Atlanta and created the water safety day template still used by the initiative today. SAI knows first-hand the power of collaboration in raising awareness and drowning prevention.
For example, over 30 individuals drown on Puerto Rican beaches every year. Scuba Dogs aquatic center, an SAI client and one of the leading swim lesson providers on the island, invited SAI to give a presentation on water safety at Plaza Las Americas, the largest shopping center in the Caribbean. Held in conjunction with an Instructor Development course for SAI’s swim lesson program, locals of all ages visited the mall during the conference to attend the presentation and learn about water safety in the pools, lakes, rivers and over 300 Puerto Rican beaches.
In December, the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race stopped in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. Kathleen and Alistair Russell, who head SAI’s Middle-East, Africa and Asia-Pacific office headquartered in Abu Dhabi, conducted presentations along with the staff of SAI client Al Mahara Diving Center to over 1500 students from the local schools and clubs. They spoke on personal water safety, PFDs, the" buddy" system and the role of a professional lifeguard in waterparks, swimming pools and waterfronts. Students were taught to identify the rescue ready lifeguard by the equipment being used.
According to the Russells, SAI’s presence in the Middle East and the instructor development courses it has offered in both swim lesson and lifeguard programs the past several years are having an impact. Clients have been encouraged by SAI to participate in “The World’s Largest Swim Lesson,” an initiative of the World Waterpark Association, and drowning prevention awareness is on the upswing in that region of the world.
Nachshon, which offers the Starfish Swimming program throughout Israel, is working with local schools to implement a water safety program. According to Elisheva Ben Ze’ev staff will visit local schools to talk about water safety to kindergarten and first grade students this spring. Nachshon is also working with Israel’s Ministry of Education to establish a national water safety week.
SAI offered its first swim instructor development course in the Maldives, southwest of Sri Lanka, in 2013. During the course, instructors were encouraged to host water safety events in addition to bringing swim lessons to the islands. As a result, Sun Diving School organized a highly successful event at Vilureef Beach & Spa Resort for students of Bandidhoo in Dhaalu Atoll. Students were to participate in water safety activities in the lagoon of the resort. According to Koenraad Zuurbier, Sun Diving School plans to continue offering events at other resorts in coalition with local school principals.
In The Netherlands, the municipality asked De Smient, a provider of the PADI Swim School offered by SAI, to create a water safety program for persons with dementia. Government officials believe that swimming can actually delay the process of dementia, and chose De Smient to implement the program due to their well-trained StarGuard lifeguard staff.
De Smient will also attend the largest scuba show in The Netherlands to conduct a presentation comparing existing European swim training techniques with SAI’s swim lesson program. They will educate attendees on the need to incorporate safety skill benchmarks in swim lesson programs, according to Ronald Brugmans.
SAI’s partnerships in drowning prevention also extend to the continent of Africa. Many of the attendees at a swim lesson instructor development course in Johannesburg, South Africa this past October are planning water safety programs in a part of the world that desperately needs to raise awareness and teach basic survival swimming skills.
Similarly, J. and Lorraine Wilson, owners The Dive Spot in Abilene, Texas, traveled three times to a school in Lira, Uganda to make an impact. Uganda has one of the highest drowning rates in the world. Calling their customized Starfish Swimming curriculum “Saving Waters,” they taught survival skills to over 400 children and 81 adults in four days. The team traveled with swimsuits, goggles and other supplies collected in a drive publicized by SAI back in the United States.
Work in Uganda continues. Sempsrott represented SAI in Uganda in November as part of an inter-agency team. This was a first-time collaboration in drowning prevention for SAI, the International Surf Lifesaving Association (ISLA), Lifeguards Without Borders, Nile Swimmers, and the three main aquatic safety entities in Uganda: Swim Safe Uganda, Uganda Lifesaving Federation and the Royal Lifesaving Society of Uganda.
While in Uganda, SAI, ISLA and Nile Swimmers conducted a course on lifeguarding, water safety and CPR for 60 participants. In a first-ever meeting of its kind in Uganda, their representatives met with community stakeholders to focus on teaching survival swimming skills in the community. It included not only the aquatic safety agencies, but also representatives from the police and fire departments, EMS, military, Ministry of Sports, Ministry of Education and the Uganda Swim Federation. Committee members created a task-force to address drowning in Uganda.
“Together we are stronger. No one agency can solve the problem of drowning alone,” Sempsrott said.
“We rely on multiple levels of protection for drowning prevention: pool gates, supervision, swim lessons. The same method can be applied when addressing drowning at a policy level. We need multiple levels and multiple agencies working together.”
“If we can teach the kids in Uganda to swim, we can vaccinate them from drowning later in life,” Sempsrott urged. “If we all work together and play to the strengths of each agency, we can do more to help.”
SAI has long been recognized as a world leader in drowning prevention. Invitations to speak at the World Drowning Prevention conferences in Viet Name, Germany and Malaysia, and recently at conferences in Canada and the Middle East, allow the organization to educate at the highest levels. However, as SAI expands its drowning prevention efforts worldwide, it will offer its dryland presentations to children, junior lifeguard courses to pre-teens and water safety events to participants of all ages primarily through its training center clients. This grass roots, community-based approach is equally critical in SAI’s commitment to reduce drowning rates around the world.
Jennifer Whiteis chief operating officer and swim school specialist for Starfish Aquatics Institute based in Lincolnshire, Ill. One of her focuses is adapting SAI programs to fit with the needs of international countries, from culture to environment.