Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government

Irish Water Safety: Chairperson Designate

9:30 am

Mr. Martin O'Sullivan:

I come from a small village in west Cork called Glengarriff but I have been living in Douglas in Cork. I am married to Áine and we have three children, all of whom are boys and are now very much grown up. I am a retired second level teacher; I taught English. I have been involved with Irish Water Safety in one way or another for more than 40 years - far too long. Members will have seen from my submission that I became involved initially in 1971.

From being involved in Ireland I became involved at a European level where I was voted in as chair of the International Life Saving Rescue Commission. That would have been in the 1990s. That was followed by a significant number of years in that position before I was elected as a member of the board of directors of the International Life Saving Federation in the European region. This year I was voted as a member of the board for the world body of the International Life Saving Federation. Until then I was chairman of the International Life Saving world body rescue commission. The amount of time spent in the area is quite considerable, as the committee can see, and it has been a gradual process. I do not come from the left or right wing and I have made the gradual step up from being involved as an instructor, teaching life-saving and swimming, to the present point. I continue voluntarily to teach life-saving.

The Irish Water Safety organisation was established in 1945 as a section of the Red Cross. It grew and became the Irish Water Safety Association in 1971, which was around the same time I became involved. In 1987 we were amalgamated with the road and fire safety bodies to become the national safety council. We were very glad to be reappointed as a national body, standing in our own right, in 2000 by means of a statutory instrument. We are an independent statutory voluntary body, which is an unusual combination. We have hard-working staff in our headquarters in Galway, with more than 4,000 volunteer members nationwide. In many ways, our job is to teach. The volunteers teach swimming and life-saving. Our headquarters staff are involved with educating people by means of the media to have best practice when it comes to water safety. We teach swimming and life-saving, with a significant number of public safety awareness programmes and campaigns in place. In each county we have water safety area committees. We also have two dedicated committees, with one in the Curragh for the Army and the other in Templemore for the Garda. Our water safety area committees have what is called a water safety development officer, WSDO, linking the area committees with the local authority. They are paid officials.

Without a shadow of a doubt, our strongest asset is our volunteer network. The core volunteers teach a winter programme, usually beginning at this time of year and going right through until approximately Easter. There is a summer programme where our volunteers go to the beaches, outdoor pools, rivers and lakes to teach swimming and life-saving. This system is unique in Europe, as we send volunteers out to teach swimming and life-saving across the nation and outdoors. It is quite normal to have it taught indoors but we do it outdoors, on every little beach, river and lake throughout the country. We train and assess lifeguards. We do not hire them, as that is up to either the local authority or the individual private company that might employ lifeguards in a leisure centre.

One of our biggest and most important tasks is carrying out risk assessments. Irish Water Safety developed the risk assessment system now in place across Europe, which has proven a great success. We work, in that context, very closely with An Taisce and Blue Flag, for example, ensuring that a beach getting a flag must be risk assessed. Part of our work is the primary aquatic water safety, PAWS, programme, which has been accepted by the Department of Education and Skills as part of the primary schools curriculum. There were 55,000 certificates issued last year to primary schoolchildren who took part. I recognise, as incoming chairman, that much more work must be done to get the PAWS programme in place in all primary schools throughout the country.

Statistics for drownings in Ireland indicate that much work remains to be done. As the committee is probably aware, there were 122 drownings in 2015, with 66 of those being accidental. The rest are covered under the headings of "suicide" and "undetermined". The number of accidental drownings increased from previous years, which reminds us that the job goes on and we cannot accept such numbers. A few years ago we saw a significant decrease in the numbers drowned, and although there have not been too many serious changes, the number of 66 deaths last year was above average.

In that context, we must get people from the fishing industry involved, whether they are on the sea or off the rocks, and try to get across the message that they should wear life jackets. We work in conjunction with the other agencies, including the Coast Guard, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and Bord Iascaigh Mhara, to get the message across with a particular focus on the fishing community and anybody involved. If we consider the statistics over the years, we can see a greater number of people drown inland than do offshore or on our beaches.

Looking forward, it is necessary for us to continue to make the public aware of the dangers. We must increase the number of people we are getting to with the PAWS programme and also in our summer weeks programme, where we teach on the beaches. We need to get all the children involved. It is wonderful to go to places and remote regions and realise that every child is participating. That is the case in quite a number of rural areas, as they do not have access to swimming pools. They use the time to teach the children to swim and be capable of self-rescue and the rescuing of others. I thank all the volunteers and our hard-working staff in our headquarters in Galway.


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