At a time when floods are wreaking havoc across Queensland and Victoria it may seem unsympathetic to be talking about water safety.
However as a parent and a communications specialist I’ve been following the news this summer with a particular sense of dread. This dread has only been heightened by the unpredictability of the flood waters and the public’s varying response to it. My fear: When will the next drowing occur?
Experts agree it’s already an awful summer for aquatic incidents. Despite regular messages and pleas from authorities including Life Saving Victoria and the State Emergency Service, too many Australians have already died. And that’s not including those who didn’t stand a chance in the devastating Queensland floods.
Toddlers have drowned and nearly drowned in backyard pools. Grownups have been caught in ocean rips and disappeared in rivers. Last year 314 people drowned in Australia. This year’s toll could be even higher.
My dread – and sense of responsibility – comes from five years working for an organisation that promotes water safety as part of its vision for creating stronger families and communities.
This knowledge has been deepened by my own experience of one of my children getting into trouble in a public swimming pool while I was just metres away. At the time I was trying to supervise both a three year old and a five year old. And here’s the dangerous part - all while continuing to hold a conversation with a friend.
Luckily my daughter, though shocked, was fine. At seven she still recalls the experience vividly. It served to wake me up in a way that the constant messages I’d been both sharing and receiving via work and the media had failed to cut through.
I now know in my bones that you can’t afford to be complacent around water. You can’t rely on lifeguards or others nearby. You have to actively watch your children, no matter how much you’d rather be talking to a friend, reading a book or living the life you had before children.
You have to be ready to spring into action and know how to help them get them out of trouble in all aquatic environments – currents, ocean rips, rivers with murky depth – flood waters.
You want to be sure that as they grow into teenagers and young adults, this knowledge will be so instinctive in your child that you’re never likely to have police knocking on your door with earth-shattering news.
In a land surrounded by sea and peppered with swimming pools and inland rivers, lakes and dams – that at present seem to be merging – we have to do better as a nation. We have to provide all children with swimming and water safety lessons that do more than just teach them how to swim laps, with correct stroke techniques.
It’s only by ensuring that all children have the opportunity to learn both how to swim and how to be safer around water that we can prevent further tragedies. And until they’re at least ten – yes ten – and you’re completely confident in their capabilities, you have to watch them like a hawk, from no more than an arms-length. Even at a public pool. And, yes, around flood waters, too.