Surf wars

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 August, 2005, 12:00am

Ten-year-old Law Yiu-suet was unconscious when two lifeguards pulled her from 1.5 metres of water at a private swimming pool at the Lam Tin housing estate.

But she was still alive. The guards had a chance to save her, but instead they just stared - according to vice-chairman of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Life Guards' Union, Alex Kwok Siu-kit - too frightened to do the necessary CPR or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation that could have given her the chance to live a full life.

'She had drowned and they were scared because they didn't know what to do,' Mr Kwok said. 'She could be alive today if they had done the proper life-saving training, or if one of them had experience dealing with a situation like this.'

Yiu-suet's father had only lost sight of his daughter for a minute. When he turned, she was gone.

While the lifeguards had their bronze medallions - the basic water supervision award recognised around the world - both were rookies, and working for an employer with no real understanding of how important experience in life and death situations is.

The Hong Kong and Kowloon Life Guards' Union claims there have been another four drownings which are the direct result of the inexperience of lifeguards.

On July 16, 1997, 10-year-old Yang Ting-fun drowned in a pool in Tai Po Gardens. At an inquest into his death, coroner John Saunders said being a lifeguard was 'not a job for young men to sit in the sun and enjoy themselves'.

The owners of the South Horizons private estate were ordered to improve the safety of their pool following the death of six-year-old Jenissa Fung Si-wing on April 3 last year. The death of a 73-year-old woman, who drowned in a private pool in Sha Tin on July 21 last year was also blamed on poor supervision, as was the death of a seven-year-old boy at Monte Vista housing estate in Ma On Shan on May 16 last year.

Mr Kwok fears these tragedies will become far more common if the government persists with applying the market principle of outsourcing to lifeguards.

'This was one small pool; imagine if lifeguards with no real on-the-job training and experience are patrolling all our public beaches and swimming pools?'

The union has produced a list of needless deaths they say were caused by inexperienced lifeguards with minimal credentials.

Lifeguards decided to make a stand against the government's move to outsource 10 positions to be created at the new Tai Kok Tsui Sports Centre. They marched off the job on Monday, closing beaches and pools across the city.

It was the perfect day to make such a statement, with schoolchildren on holiday and rare clear summer skies. Red 'closed' flags were pitched on 10 beaches, and while only two swimming pools were closed, 23 had limited facilities.

A dip in the pool or a splash in the sea is an important part of life in the city, especially on sweltering mid-summer days. But while the water looks inviting in the oppressive heat, many taking the plunge have limited experience for when trouble strikes.

In 2003, there were three deaths and 96 rescues in pools, with lifeguards assisting 1,535 people suffering from problems such as cramps or exhaustion. There were also 414 pool-side injuries. On the beaches, there were five deaths, and lifeguards made 190 rescues and assisted 713 who encountered trouble in the water.

Drowning is not the only worry. Lifeguards also had to deal with problems relating to pool hygiene. Nine pools were plagued with bloodworms last year, and there have been increasing cases of swimmers defecating in the pool water.

Leisure and Cultural Services Department spokesman Gordon Tam says outsourcing is now government policy and not negotiable. There has been a total freeze on any new civil service recruitments, forcing the department to find staff elsewhere. But he said the union was wrong to claim safety standards would be compromised. 'The qualifications in the tenders are exactly the same because these [contract] lifeguards have to get the same qualifications.

'The union's argument is like saying a lawyer is not qualified because of the way he is employed - there is only one organisation that hands out lifeguard qualifications.' Mr Tam said contract lifeguards must have five years' experience to qualify as a senior lifeguard. The minimal experience for other employed lifeguards is 11/2 years.

The government has recently changed the laws making it compulsory for all lifeguards - whether employed in private or public pools - to hold the same six qualifications.

As well as the bronze medallion, the internationally recognised water safety training qualification, they must have passed a basic first aid course and have received the Pool Lifeguard award, Beach Lifeguard award, hold an Aquatic First Aid certificate, and an Open Water Rescue certificate.

A new monitoring system is in place and all serious accidents will be investigated by a deputy director of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

Mr Tam said the lifeguards' jobs were safe and they would keep the same pay and conditions.

But services will continue to be contracted out at all new pools with the strict condition that job opportunities for existing staff members would not be affected.

'This is not a new policy - it has been going for more than 10 years - and we have already outsourced 10 sports centres based on this policy,' Mr Tam said. 'For the union, this dispute seems to be about the contract policy, not safety or conditions.'

The government employs 1,600 lifeguards, with about half on long-term contracts, while the others are seasonally employed. With a peak swimming season lasting two months, it doesn't make sense to have lifeguards employed full-time, the department says.

Mr Kwok said he had many examples of poor training among outsourced lifeguards, but they were refusing to talk because they feared for their jobs. He denied the dispute was only about money and job security, but admitted morale had been hit by pay cuts that took the monthly salary from $11,115 in 2003 to $8,300 this year. The number of applications for the seasonal positions was down by 40 per cent from last year, he said.

One senior female lifeguard, speaking on condition of anonymity, began working as a contract lifesaver as a 20-year-old in 1995.

Her dream was a full-time position in a profession she loved. But 10 years on, and the 'golden years of her life' behind her, she is still waiting for that elusive job security.

'I have good experience and a good record,' she said. 'It isn't fair. I've sacrificed a lot for this job that I love, but I am still on a contract with no job security at all.

'This is always on my mind now, doing the job is harder. I really don't see a future in this, but it's too late for me now. What can I do?'

The government has promised training for lifeguards to give them the option of working in other areas, such as supervising at water sports centres. Such training may even equip them to work as private coaches, teaching surfing or water skiing.

But the union claims this is window dressing and no substitute for experienced lifeguards patrolling Hong Kong's beaches and pools.

Lifeguards say they would rather take what they know into schools in winter, teaching children about the importance of water safety and limiting danger in the water in summer.

Mr Kwok said it was time for the government to begin taking the profession seriously and look for long-term solutions.

'The government does not realise that people are turning away from this job,' he said. 'They don't see this as a proper profession anymore.

'It's not really a healthy job. We are in the hard sun all the time, not in the water enjoying ourselves.

'It's a tough job but we are proud of our skills and what we do. This is about saving lives and helping people.'