Water safety and daily challenges faced by WOPR lifeguards

Bezpieczeństwo nad wodą

In June and July of this year, 113 people have already drowned. Last year, 419 people lost their lives in this way. Unfortunately, bravado and lack of imagination and overestimation of one’s own capabilities are the most common causes of drowning. The important thing is to use places designated for bathing, follow the rules and keep an eye on children while they are playing by the water. Every year, the Water Volunteer Rescue Service appeals for prudence and reason. We talk about the dangers of relaxing by the water and respect for this element with Paweł Błasiak – president of WOPR.

Marta Saracyn: Good morning, the vacations are starting and many of us will be spending this period on the water. How can we take care of our own safety and not add to the rescuers’ workload?

Pawel Blasiak: I will say this: in order not to get cold in the winter, you need to buy a fur coat beforehand. The analogy is with concern for safety on the water. The best way to prevent drowning, and probably the only one with so much effectiveness, is to learn to swim. Let’s learn to swim from an early age. Up to the age of 6 months, the baby still has a habit from the fetal period and, falling into the water, does not close its eyes or plug its nose. It has reflexes that help it stay underwater. Older children need to be taught this already. The earlier it is, the easier it is.

Learning to swim is an essential factor in preventing drowning. Other things are secondary factors. What, for example? Think logically and anticipate, listen to the rescuers. Contrary to appearances, these are not people who do not like us or do not like to work. Without a second thought, the real WOPRs jump into the water to fight for human life. They are not from standing on the beach, sunbathing and staring at their phones. A distinction must be made between people willing to risk their own health and lives to help us and those without a vocation for this work.

M.S.: What does it take to become such a lifeguard? Is it easy, or does it require more complicated procedures?

P.B.: First of all, it is to want. Because acquiring skills requires a lot of your own work and commitment. Of course, it is easier for people who have been swimming since childhood, sometimes even athletically, because they already have the stage of getting used to the water, the ability to hold on to it and move quickly. Those who have not done so since childhood need to possess this skill. Merely moving deliberately in the water is not yet swimming.

The appropriate level is confirmed only by obtaining a specific certificate. The basic ability to move at any time and plunge without resistance is not enough. To become a lifeguard, swimming skills must be broader. You need to cover the distance in a shorter time, you need to have more endurance, and you need to master the elements of rescue, i.e. searching for the victim, pulling out and towing. Then there is the work on the equipment. Today, a lifeguard is no longer just a cap-and-bath-whistle, but quads, drones, scooters, boats, special boards. That’s the kind of equipment we work with, so you have to learn how to use it.

The above sentences describe the first minutes of our action. Another thing is revival, which is the maintenance of vital functions until the arrival of the ambulance. That’s another 15 to 30 minutes of work, which you also have to be ready for. This is not an easy task either physically or mentally.

To become a lifeguard, all you need is willingness and commitment. WOPR-trained lifeguards are plentiful. They may not all be qualified for the job, but they are people who know how to save, know how to take care of themselves and help someone else.

Safety on the water
Water safety and daily challenges faced by WOPR lifeguards 1

M.S.: WOPR lifeguards spend a lot of time on the water, on the water, in the water, so they have a unique perspective on this resource. Do you see a change in the appearance of the water? What do our rivers look like, is something improving, something deteriorating from the perspective of an observer who is directly and regularly there?

P.B.: From an ecological point of view, it’s probably the rafters who could say the most about the rivers. These are the people who know the river best, because they live it. Nowadays, the best informed are inland waterway workers, lifeguards working on rivers, sometimes police officers or firefighters.

I can tell you about the changes in the recreation sector. Here a lot has changed. When I started my adventure in water rescue in the 1980s, which is a very long time ago, I was still sailing a bit. Back then, there were few sailboats in Mazury and there was always a place waiting in the harbor, whether in Mikolajki or tiny Sztynort. At the moment it is very crowded on the Masurian lakes, on Zegrze near Warsaw there is sometimes nowhere to stick a finger. Recreation on the water has grown tremendously, and thus periwater pollution has also increased. The shores are littered to the point that it is scary to get out of the boat. Recreational, shopping, and economic infrastructure has increased. This is in response to growing demand, which unfortunately involves adverse impacts on nature.

The main task in my work is to take care of safety on the water, so I will also say a few words about this. It is certainly better. Suffice it to mention that 25 years ago 800 people were drowning annually, today these figures are hovering around 400. Especially since the density of people on the water is much higher. There is more canoeing, more people are walrting or swimming on boards. On the other hand, those 400 people (419 last year) are an awful lot. That’s nearly half a thousand drownings. And here I must add that they all drowned in places not allowed for swimming, where there were no lifeguards and no one to help them.

It is worth saying that last year there were only 19 drownings at sea. That “only” may not sound like much, as it means as many as 19 human tragedies, but we only get the full picture when this figure is juxtaposed with the number of beachgoers taking a dip. After all, it’s hundreds if not thousands of people every day. Rescuers do their work every day, and it is very often not included in the statistics. They are not reached by a child pulled out from under the water who slipped off the mattress a second earlier, or by an offended man who repeats that he is coping. Yes, at a given moment, and in a moment it could become a sad point in the table.

It is important to remember that sinking has several phases. At first, a person does not know that in a moment he will be sinking. Experienced lifeguards who observe swimmers sometimes know earlier than the swimmer that he or she is at risk.

In summary, water use has improved. There are many more users and fewer drownings. We enjoy this water, but very often forget about common sense. It is not possible for everyone to use only guarded sites – they would run out of space. Water sports are also allowed in unguarded areas, but there you need to exercise extreme caution. Swimming in unfamiliar places, combined with bravado, all too often ends tragically.

M.S.: You said that tourism has developed a lot and more and more people are using water as a place for recreation. We at Water Matters described the 10 cardinal sins of the ignorant tourist. These include. issues related to the burning of bonfires in unauthorized places or the destruction of the coastal zone. From your perspective, what would the major sins of an unwitting tourist look like? What is essential to pay attention to?

P.B.: I would list the lack of respect for water as the first. Anyone coming into contact with it should feel a sense of awe, as it is an untamed element. Most rescuers have experienced at least one extreme situation in their work. It’s part of the profession, a kind of mission. A driver or doctor may interrupt his duties, while a rescuer does not know what awaits him from the drowning person. A man fighting for life becomes very strong, and then the advantage is given to technique, skill and keeping calm. The respect felt for the element helps to soberly assess the situation and help effectively. This respect for water also manifests itself in the fact that we know how to stay in it, coexist in it, that is, play safely, swim.

The second important point – concern for the safety of yourself and others. If you swim out of the bathing area, be sure to wear buoys and lifeguard straps. The rescuer always carries his equipment, even competitions are held with the use of rescue belts. More to emphasize the idea itself, but the habit developed can save more than one life.

I’d like to emphasize that WOPR personnel do not die in actions. We are well trained, and the respect we have for the water allows us to properly assess the possibilities and respond appropriately to the situation. We train according to an international system that requires quite a lot of experience and many hours of work and practice before you can achieve professional certification. Our state entitlements are a little lower, but in my opinion also at a high level. Water rescue is not an eight-hour job, it is a lifelong passion.

Another point is to take care of those for whom we are responsible, most often children or siblings. All it takes is for a wave to wash up your legs or fall into the water from your scuba gear without a life jacket and the drama is done. Even well-swimming sailors and sportsmen do not give up this kind of security. So let’s not allow the youngest to bravado, and let’s set a good example ourselves.

In conclusion, it all boils down to swimming skills, which one would need to perfect throughout life, and respect towards the element that is water.

M.S.: Thank you very much for the interview and the tips for spending time safely on the water.


Photo source: Water Volunteer Rescue Service

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