It takes more than an ability to swim to be safe in and around water. Alertness to possible danger, basic rescue techniques and resuscitation skills can prevent tragedy, writes Alf Alderson
Teaching children to swim is a priority for many parents and schools. But keeping out of danger in or around water is not just a case of being able to do lengths in a pool. An ability to swim will not necessarily save a child's life, but safety awareness could.
In recent years there have been a number of tragedies in which children have drowned in swimming pools while on accompanied school trips. As a result there is now a greater emphasis on safety for school groups.
Chris Payne is the leisure manager for Pembrokeshire County Council in West Wales and has responsibility for water safety at the county's pools and beaches. The authority has begun focusing much more attention on water safety and life-saving courses in particular, "because we feel that school swimming should be more than just splashing about in the pool," he says.
"Through taking the various courses that are offered by the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS), youngsters are able to learn life-saving skills, be aware of the potential dangers of water and know how to react in anemergency."
He feels that this is especially important in an area such as Pembrokeshire, which is surrounded by the sea on three sides. But that doesn't mean it should not apply to inland areas - after all, there are few parts of the country that are not within easy reach of a lake, river or canal, if not the sea.
The courses set for children by the RLSS are graded so that most levels of ability can find something to suit them. These start with the Rookie Award for children aged from 5 to 14. This is organised to allow younger children who perhaps can't swim to do non-water based activities, such as learning to telephone the emergency services and, once their swimming ability has improved, there are swimming tests.
Each level involves basic water safety knowledge and life-saving skills. The awards range from one to four stars, with four levels within each star.
"The courses are designed to be fun, and use games as a mean of teaching," says Nigel Jackson of the RLSS.
"Children don't pass or fail the courses, they're designed to be taken on an attainment basis. They also fit in with the national curriculum and can be run by teachers as long as a lifeguard is in attendance.
"We also produce a trainer's guide for teachers to help them run the rookie course." This aims to teach children "reach and throw" rescue techniques rather than having them leap into the water to perform a rescue, which can be dangerous.
"The idea is that if they spot someone in difficulty they can call the emergency services and perform a recue from the bank by using an object, such as a stick or umbrella, to reach out to them. Alternatively, they would know to throw an object such as a football to help the person float until help arrives."
Older rookies have actually used their new skills to perform rescues - Nigel tells how a 12-year-old girl was able to get her father ashore when he suffered severe cramp while out swimming with her.
Fourteen-year-olds and older students can take the society's Bronze Medallion, which is a more advanced life-saving award, while 16-year-olds can work towards the National Pool Lifeguard Qualification and National Beach Lifeguard Qualification - vocational awards for anyone wanting to work asa lifeguard.
In coastal areas it is a natural progression for children to take the knowledge gained in swimming pools to the beach. In Pembrokeshire, the local authority works with the Surf Life Saving Association of Great Britain to organise examinations for youngsters who want to recreate the Baywatch experience.
Chris says: "I feel that the life-saving courses we run in the pools provide children with a good knowledge of the potential hazards of water, how to keep themselves safe and how to help others, and it makes sense to take these skills on to the beaches as many local children will be spending their summer holidays swimming, surfing, sailing or canoeing around the coast."
Next summer the Surf Life Saving Association will be introducing a National Beach Safety Award scheme for children aged from five to fifteen.
Pembroke is not the only county to address water safety. Swimming and water safety courses are run elsewhere. With the right tuition, there is no reason why any child who enjoys splashing about cannot learn to do so safely.
* Royal Life Saving Society UK, River House, High Street, Broom,Warwickshire B50 4HN. Tel: 01789 773994
* Surf Life Saving Associationof Great Britain, Verney House, 115 Sidwell Street, Exeter EX4 6RY. Tel: 01392 254364