The Barcaldine Regional Council’s support of a collaborative water safety and drowning prevention program at Alpha earned a thumbs up from federal sports minister, Bridget McKenzie, when she visited in early January.
Offered particularly for rural families struggling to access the state funded swimming lessons and after a grant application was denied, the initiative was particularly welcomed by the minister in the wake of a growing drowning toll in Australia this summer.
According to the Royal Lifesaving Australia website, 57 drowning deaths have so far been reported this summer, compared with 40 over the same period last season.
While men between the ages of 18 and 64 account for the vast majority of these deaths, 46 per cent of them occurred at inland rivers, lakes and dams.
The woman delivering the lessons in Alpha, Danielle Taylor, a Royal Lifesaving Australia employee, said it was important to advocate the issue of drowning in rural communities, particularly after some properties received relief rain in December.
“One parent has a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and it was the first time she’d seen that much rain. Now the dam beside their house is full and it’s a scary proposition,” Danielle said.
The council funding, $14,500, was granted after an application undertaken by one of the Lions Clubs that supported last year’s drought relief initiative to Jericho was rejected.
Danielle said the eight week bottom-up program, developed collaboratively between the Alpha Learn To Swim, the Alpha Amateur Swim Club and the Alpha State School, was undertaken to alleviate the pressures faced by rural families wanting to access lessons but struggling with the costs associated with drought.
“The state government says it provides everything through schools but children have to be at least five years old,” she said.
“They fail to realised that in rural locations the only place rural families have for access is private lessons.
“Distance ed kids have a mini-school once a term and have one swim lesson as part of that.
“The Alpha State School by contrast has eight lessons in term one and another eight in term four.”
She and Barcaldine Regional Councillor and distance education parent, Sean Dillon, explained to Minister McKenzie that the distance to travel and timing of state school lessons prevented them from taking part in scheduled school sessions.
Instead, they pay for after-school private lessons.
“The council subsidised the lessons because it’s costing parents enough to drive in and out of town,” Cr Dillon said. “We also wanted to do it because of the water around after the long dry spell.”
Some 154 children accessed the program, 34 of them from the Alpha State School and 15 from the Jericho State School.
Danielle said she would like to see the state government provide vouchers for the equivalent number of lessons for distance education families.
“The minister’s reception of our message was positive,” she said. “It would be naive to think there’d be a dramatic increase in funding but I hope for an increased awareness of how current funding isn’t reaching rural children.”
The message hit a chord with Ms McKenzie, who emphasised that she had written into Sport 2030 that every Australian child would graduate from primary school knowing how to swim, which would mean working with state governments.
As well as creating a weekly support network for children and parents in times of drought, the program at Alpha was aimed at increasing the drowning prevention message.
According to Royal Lifesaving Australia, on average, two children under the age of five drown in farm dams every year. In addition, for every one of those drowning deaths, there are approximately three hospitalisations.
Royal Life Saving Australia’s Swim and Survive, Keep Watch and Respect the River, and Swim Australia’s Swim Safer Week Campaign were incorporated into the program to specifically meet the needs of the rural population.
While dams are the most common location for toddler drowning deaths, troughs, irrigation channels, water tanks, swimming pools, and even rivers and lakes, pose an equally significant risk to children, and information fliers, kickboards and farm safety ‘Shut the Gate’ signs were donated to reinforce the message on properties.
Danielle said the evaluation process had highlighted the challenges of reducing the burden of drowning in rural communities, while also providing insights into effective intervention and strategies for supporting sustainable prevention efforts.
The messages covered over the eight weeks of the program included:
- The Learn to Swim Journey - What are realistic expectations for you child, given their age, in the learn to swim environment
- Supervise – All of your attention, all the time! - Where the message was all about active supervision of children in or around water
- RESUSCITATE - Everyone Can Be a Lifesaver! - Where the message was all about the teaching of resuscitate skills to the community. 5 free CPR workshops were offered over the course of the program.
- Swim Australia Swim Safe Week - We incorporated the Swim Australia national swim safer week into our event, where the focus that week was all about beach safety. An important, and often forgotten message for our rural children.
- Water Awareness - Where parents learnt about how swimming lessons and water awareness fit into the drowning prevention scheme.
- Visiting a public pool - Where our message was all about parent supervision and lifeguard responsibilities (lifeguards are not babysitters)
- Keep Watch on the Farm - Where our families learnt about the added dangers rural children face when it comes to drowning and what are some simple measures we can put in place to combat these issues
- Kids Alive: Do the 5: Reinforced all components of the 8 week program, and each family was distributed the kids alive DVD and book pack (provided by Swim Australia)
Royal Life Saving’s Keep Watch @ The Farm program strongly advocates for supervision to be a priority at all farm locations and for supervision to be supported by water awareness, resuscitation skills and child safe play areas.
Easy access to water and a lack of direct adult supervision by parents or carers have been the main factors in the farm drowning deaths of children.
The Alpha Learn to Swim has an impressive training record. So far this year it has trained and injected into the central west:
- 3 Swim Australia swim teachers to Barcaldine
- 6 Swim Australia swim teachers to Alpha/Jericho
- 2 Swim Australia swim teachers to Blackall
- 7 Swim Australia swim teachers to Aramac (planned for February)
- 1 Swim Australia swim teacher to Tambo
- 5 Royal Life Saving Society Queensland lifeguards to Alpha/Jericho
- 7 RTO bronze medallion qualifications to Alpha/Jericho
- 3 RTO bronze medallion qualifications to Barcaldine/Blackall
- Over 50 Alpha/Jericho residents in CPR or first aid at a significantly reduced cost to the participants
- Over 50 Barcaldine residents in CPR or first aid at a significantly reduced cost to the participants
- Run 5 free CPR workshops for Alpha and Jericho residents