In 2003, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department made a move to outsource the life-saving service in two of its public swimming pools, but it was scuttled by a strike by the lifeguards. The department cut the life-saving workforce by 30per cent, from 2,300 to just 1,580, citing the recession. Despite the opening of 10 new pools since then, the current staff strength is still only at 1,900.
Worse, the department has been trying to nickel-and-dime lifeguard services to death. It is playing Russian roulette with the lives of beach-goers and pool users. From 2010 to June this year, one person drowned and 182 people needed rescue at our public pools, department statistics show. But no one in government seems to care. By contrast, in Concord, California, a single fatal drowning in 14 years resulted in the closure of the pool for a year.
In fact, Hong Kong ignores all international protocols in this vital service. Most international cities have six lifeguards on duty per shift in a public pool; Canada has as many as 10. We have just three. The rescue operation takes a minimum of three guards - one for CPR, one for mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and one to operate the defibrillator. And yet the government stipulates that there must be a guard on the watchtower at all times. This means the rescue mission has to rely on help being rushed from other pools which are equally shorthanded.
In Vancouver, lifeguards follow the so-called 20-20 rule: one guard per 20 pool users, who scans the pool every 20 seconds, and who rotates to different duties every 20 minutes to prevent boredom. They have regular breaks. Here, lifeguards are given no breaks at all. What's more, the department wants the guards to work overtime. What we have is a vital service grossly mismanaged by ignorant and uncaring bureaucrats.
In Canada, qualifying for lifeguard duty takes up to four steps, with the national lifeguard service qualification alone taking seven weeks of full-time training and test. Once qualified, they receive decent pay and are treated with professional respect. Here, lifeguards are supervised by desk-bound bureaucrats who treat them like semi-skilled technicians with no prospects for promotion.
Overseas, if a drowning occurs, the penalty can be severe. Not only will the lifeguard on duty be hauled before the courts, the examiner who approved his certificate is also legally liable. Here, no one is held accountable. There is also something sinister going on. According to the Hong Kong & Kowloon Life Guards' Union, the department has been trying to play down the severity of mishaps, by classifying any incident that does not require a hospital trip as a 'give a hand' service, rather than a 'rescue' service.
About 800 lifeguards had threatened to strike tomorrow, ironically a day designated as Sport For All Day. They were demanding 400 additional lifeguards but called off the strike yesterday when they were promised an extra 50. The department would rather take on seasonal lifeguards on three-month contracts. After 90 days of orientation training, they will be ready to serve for just 90 days.
Shouldn't someone pay for this mess? Will the director of leisure and cultural services step forward to take the blame, or should it be laid at the feet of her political master, the secretary for home affairs?
Philip Yeung, who trained and qualified as a lifeguard, is a senior communication manager at a Hong Kong university. firstname.lastname@example.org