By Bruce Hopkins*
Australia has a well-earned reputation as nation where locals and visitors alike can enjoy the pleasures of a beach lifestyle in safety thanks to the supervision of skilled, experienced and professional lifeguards.
But if you think that the kind high-calibre professional lifeguarding services that are now being provided by many local governments are a given and here to stay, think again.
There is much to be deeply concerned about thanks to a misguided push for changes to how beach lifeguarding duties are performed, managed and sourced by councils.
At the heart of the matter is whether local governments which have beaches should retain their own highly skilled professional lifeguarding services – created over decades in the interests of public safety and education – or contract these out to commercial organisations seeking to make a profit.
A recent article in Government News “Lifesavers battle rival councils for beach patrol” serves as a case in point.
I’ve been a professional Lifeguard for 21 years and, with other members of the community, am strongly committed to ensuring that our beaches remain as safe and as accessible as we can make them. I have also witnessed the evolution of beach safety as an integral part of our cultural fabric from the beginning. I was a part of the very first nippers group at Bronte beach in 1974; my young adult life was consumed around competing for Bronte Surf Club in the Australian Titles and the World Titles with much success, winning gold and silver in many races. I loved the surf club culture and I still do at the ‘grass-roots’ level.
But what has been causing me many sleepless nights is how Surf Live Saving Australia has evolved into business powerhouse. So much has changed – and for the worse.
The coverage by Government News of Surf Live Saving NSW (SLS NSW) latest council contract mentions that under the new deal, the local governments will save around $400,000 a year by contracting out services to Australian Lifeguard Service (ALS).
It might look good at first, but councils need to ask themselves what are the risks below the surface.
Will such savings be achieved by cutting back the hours of Lifeguards and having them work only 8 months of a year?
And will ALS be using charity-funded Surf Clubs equipment, thus gaining a significant advantage in winning every tender?
It’s worth considering that the Surf Clubs are at least partly funded by the Australian public for essentially charitable activities rather than commercial ones.
As such, the real question of a conflict of interest arises from the commercial use of assets and equipment bought with the proceeds of community fundraising.
Another claim made by SLS NSW through Government News is that 40 lifesavers will be employed under the ‘new deal.’
There are a couple of things wrong with this idea and its assertion.
Firstly, [volunteer-sourced] lifesavers are nowhere near the standard and skill of council Lifeguards, and that’s a fact.
I challenge the lifesavers to do the council Lifeguard physical test that all Lifeguards must pass in order to work the beach. I believe most wouldn’t pass; a [possible] result of their lack of skill [is that] people may drown!
Secondly, to extract savings in the order of $400,000 per year it has to be asked whether SLS NSW will have to pay lifesavers the bare minimum wage to deliver their promise of savings to councils.
It also needs to be asked, who do they think will apply for jobs on a minimum wage and how will these people afford to live on it?
There’s a vast difference between young kids pulled from their surf club who have only ever volunteered their time for four hours once a month per summer to help assist the professional Lifeguards – Lifeguards who are on the beach 365 days a year!
Sunshine Coast was unfortunately contracted out to the ALS last year and to keep the best Lifeguards on the Sunshine Coast beaches, allegedly the Lifeguards were pressured into signing over to the ‘new deal’ under the contract of the ALS by SLSA by telling them if they don’t sign over to the ‘new deal’ Surf Life Saving Australia won’t allow them to compete in the Australian Titles and World Titles for their club!
This is their livelihood, they make money from competing, and this singlehandedly was enough to make them sign over to the new contract under the new conditions of the ALS – which by end of next year will put them on minimum wages. This is wrong on many levels.
And who does SLSA answer to? Essentially no-one, as the SLSA runs their own show.
I can’t express enough the disappointment in this so-called iconic association that I have been a part of for 40yrs that these poor Lifeguards have been pressured into such a decision.
Look at it this way. While the volunteer fire fighters do a wonderful job when there is bushfire they don’t have the skill set to put a fire out in a burning building or house. This is because the government funded fire fighters work 7 days a week and are trained to a much higher level.
It’s the same difference between professional Lifeguards and the lifesavers, yet the ALS claims their lifesavers/lifeguards are of the same caliber and the standard on the beaches will be the same under their watch…this is a very unsettling claim indeed.
The ALS have a strong chance to win every tender they bid for on price because they (ALS) have the advantage of being able to use the volunteer surf clubs’ equipment, which has been paid for from the donations of the Australian public.
Just because they have this price advantage, it doesn’t mean they can patrol beaches to an equal or better standard than Professional Lifeguards. In fact it’s to the contrary!â€¨
But because the unions and the government are too scared to take SLSA on, the community will not only at serious risk of losing elite watermen and water women who save lives – it will essentially put lives at risk.
Councils’ and SLS NSW concerns with saving money should not come at the expense of the public’s safety. Ask yourself this: If the councils are so concerned with saving the ratepayers a buck or two, why couldn’t the council just reduce the months of work needed of Lifeguards themselves – thus saving the need to tender?
This way, councils could keep their already highly acclaimed waterman, continue to have zero-drowning, keep the service at a high professional standard and most importantly, keep the lifeguards at an elite level.
It could also eventually destroy decades of hard work, personal and community commitment to creating the invaluable reputation that those visiting our beaches are protected by the most skilled water rescue practitioners in the world!
Those pushing for easy savings and quick fixes need to think about what it would mean to for the notion of beach safety and how it will suffer a real a loss of reputation and public trust. Alarmingly, there are already danger signs emerging.
The ABC’s recent Four Corners investigation legitimately examined the activities and governance of SLS NSW and SLSA (Surf Life Saving Australia) over the past 15 years.
Questions surrounding the integrity, governance and the safety of their own competitions were all raised – with all too few answers.
As the ‘business’ activities of SLS NSW and SLSA expand, people must question why they are coming after council jobs in the first place if there is not a buck in it for them.
It needs to be put on the record that there are both safety professionals and community of people who strongly believe in the protection of beach-goers and that their safety needs to be properly valued against highly-questionable promises of short-term savings.
Because the real cost of a failed experiment will ultimately be counted in deaths.
*Bruce Hopkins is President of the Australian Professional Ocean Lifeguards Association and Head Lifeguard for Waverley Council
[Editor’s note: following the publication last week of a story on the tendering of lifesaving services in NSW, Government News received feedback including a request for a right of reply on behalf of lifeguards retained by councils. The following article is the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.]
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