Sadly, a recent fatality at a popular expat complex has made many sit up and take notice of the importance of pool safety and the alarming lack of vigilance shown by many lifeguards stationed at Hong Kong’s residential complexes.
Now we are enjoying the beautifully warm weather of high summer, the many swimming pools and beaches of Hong Kong are being used to the full as welcome respite from the heat and humidity.
Yet every summer it seems that more cautionary tales are circulated on social media sites to alert parents to the potential dangers of water activities. One frequently shared article, “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning”, cites the example of a boat captain swimming to rescue a drowning 10-year-old girl whose parents (also in the water nearby) had no idea that she was in significant distress. Where you would expect someone who was drowning to wave their arms and shout for help, these two actions are, during the crucial 20 to 60 seconds that it takes for someone to drown, almost impossible.
So far, so scary. Here in Hong Kong, however, the law requires that lifeguards are on duty at every swimming pool serving over 20 residential units, at licensed clubs, or pools open to the public. I remember when first relocating here feeling very reassured that my children would have the extra protection afforded by having trained lifesavers on duty at our apartment complex.
Sadly, I now feel my relief was rather complacent. In June, an apparently fit and healthy 28-year-old woman drowned while swimming lengths in a busy pool at the Bel-Air complex at Cyberport, where at least two lifeguards were on duty. Eyewitness accounts on the Hong Kong Moms Facebook page made for very distressing reading. Almost as shocking were the related comments posted detailing the haphazard approach shown by lifeguards at several apartment blocks around Hong Kong. Concerns were raised about guards texting on phones, eating their lunch, reading newspapers or being far more worried about imposing rather arbitrary rules regarding appropriate swimwear/footwear than actually watching the pool.
In investigating the situation further, it seems that up until last year all lifeguards, whether employed by the Hong Kong government or private landlords, only needed to have passed their Bronze medallion, recognised by Royal Life Saving as the minimum standard for a qualified lifesaver and taken by most schoolchildren in Australia at the age of twelve.
Thankfully, at the end of last year, the government passed laws stating any lifeguard working at a pool or beach governed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department needed to upgrade their qualifications to a Pool Lifeguard award; sadly, the legislation requiring lifeguards employed elsewhere in the city to meet the same standards is still being framed.
So, what to do? I feel that as parents we need to put down the wine glass, climb off the lounger and get into the pool with our kids, regardless of how well they can swim, to take full responsibility for ensuring their safety. It only takes a quick bump to the head during a seemingly harmless pool game for a child to get into difficulty, and that 60 seconds of inattention could lead to a lifetime of regret.