Will Koon is one of those people who seems to have his hand in every pot.

He can be found at or near the top of the list of those credited for some of the most important recent initiatives, events and groups, including the California Water Safety Strategy; The U.S. National Water Safety Action Plan; formation of the California Water Safety Coalition; and the World Conference on Drowning Prevention in Perth, Australia.

He currently serves as national manager of drowning prevention strategy for the Royal Lifesaving Society, Australia, and an adjunct researcher with the Sydney-based University of New South Wales (UNSW) Beach Safety Research Group.

Through his volunteer and career work, Koon has focused his efforts on some of the most important issues in the community, building collaboration, especially in his home state of California, and gaining better data.

Developing focus

Koon's career and focus have undergone a continual refinement process since he became a lifeguard at 16 in Orange County, Calif.

After finishing his undergrad degree in Spanish literature, he volunteered training lifeguards in Central and South America. At the time, he noticed gaps in lifeguarding practices and training. “It made me think a lot more about lifeguarding in my home environment, in California, and in a very similar way, how there are big gaps in scientific understanding of how and why lifeguards do what they do,” he says.

Through this experience, he saw where he’d like his career to go. “I landed in a public health frame of thinking,” Koon says. “It’s quite an under-evidenced field and profession. I figured if I wanted to make a difference in that space, I needed some skills and a framework from which to approach the problem.”

Inspired, he moved to Seattle to earn his master’s in public health at the University of Washington. After graduating, Koon moved back to California to consult, performing data analysis and designing beach safety education programs for lifeguard departments, hospitals and other entities.

In attending a number of World Conferences on Drowning Prevention, Koon connected with Rob Brander, Ph.D., a beach safety researcher and professor at University of New South Wales in Sydney. Koon moved to Australia to work with Brander on a doctorate on advancing the evidence base for coastal drowning prevention.

Developing data

If you were to ask Koon his biggest passions, he’d say data and fostering collaboration among water-safety advocates. His current job and Ph.D. work nurture the former. Hopefully, it will help benefit the state of drowning data on a global scale.

In his estimate, Australia collects more data on drownings among its citizenry than anywhere else. His employer manages the Australian National Fatal Drowning Database, exposing him to what he calls “the gold standard” of drowning-data collection, taking information from various sources, including coroners, police, media, and lifeguard reports.

“It’s pretty labor-intensive to maintain, but the output is undeniable,” Koon says.

Koon is working on a project tracking the drownings in Australia, where it’s currently summer. At this point, 54 have been recorded.

“This is a really important advocacy tool,” he says, “We can use this data as a vehicle to contact the media, promote education programs, put out new messages, and identify emerging trends,” he says.

He hopes to see a similar database in California one day. “But that is going to cost money, it’s going to take some human power and capital,” Koon says.

Joining forces

When it comes to bringing people together, Koon’s been able to help out in the Golden State even from halfway around the world.

That came in the form of cofounding the Southern California Water Safety Summit and the California Water Safety Coalition, as well as playing major roles in drafting the California Water Safety Action Plan, and the U.S. National Water Safety Action Plan.

During his consulting years, he was involved in a project with the Ben Carlson Memorial & Scholarship Foundation, named after the first lifeguard to die in the line of duty. When Carlson’s father, Chris, approached Koon wanting to do more, they decided to host a summit. “One of the things that Chris picked up on really quickly was, ‘There’s so much happening in this space, but everybody seems to be doing everything on their own. There’s no real coordination,’” Koon explains.

The first Southern California Water Safety Summit was held in 2019 in Newport Beach. Attendees enjoyed meeting and sharing information with other water-safety specialists who worked in the same field or the same region.

With the success of the event, organizers thought it made sense to have a group that brought people together — especially after COVID grounded the 2020 Summit. So, after moving to Australia for his doctoral studies, Koon helped facilitate the start of the California Water Safety Coalition through Zoom meetings in early 2021. This formed “the backbone for everybody to keep collaborating and meeting, driving the issue forward in the state.”

This organization served as the foundation for drafting the California Water Safety Strategy, which launched in April of last year. Koon served as lead author and performed much of the coordination.

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