DUBAI //More lifeguards, better communication, unified regulations and improved public awareness are all key to making swimming safer, according to the men and women in red.
That was the consensus among lifeguards at the fifth annual UAE Lifeguard Championship held yesterday at Le Royal Meridien in Dubai, where lifeguards from hotels across the country put their skills to the test.
Drownings in Dubai more than doubled to 36 in the first half of this year compared with the same period last year, and children are particularly vulnerable, according to statistics from Dubai Rescue Police.
The municipality, responsible for safety in public swimming areas, has stationed 36 lifeguards at open beaches, public pools and beach parks. The civic lifeguards are stationed at Mamzar Beach Park, Jumeirah Beach Park and Mushrif Park, among others.
The municipality said in July that more lifeguards would be deployed and coastal patrols would be increased. Nevertheless, there are still open beaches without any lifeguard presence, including the stretch along Jumeirah Beach Residence.
"There are still many unattended beaches in the UAE. There is also a shortage of lifeguards on some beaches," said Bojan Kalodjera, one of the supervisors at yesterday's competition. Despite this, Mr Kalodjera said the situation has improved in recent years but added that more work needed to be done. "It would be good if there were a standardisation of qualification regulations for lifeguards," he said.
Organisers of the UAE Lifeguard Championship said they hoped the event would bring issues such as water safety and the importance of lifeguards into sharper focus.
This year, the competition gave 69 lifeguards an opportunity to exchange their expertise and experience, and serve as motivation to improve their skills.
Patrick Antaki, the complex general manager at Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa and Le Meridien Al Aqah, the hotel that organised the event, said the main objective behind the championship was not just to raise awareness about water safety, but to raise the public's esteem for lifeguards.
"People need to understand that the lifeguard is there to save them, so when the lifeguard gives direction to a swimmer it is with the intention of protecting them, and not insulting them.
"Some people seem to think it is the job of the lifeguard, especially in five-star hotels, to help them rearrange their deck chairs. They also tend to view them as babysitters," he said.
Of the 36 people who drowned in the first six months of this year, a quarter of them were children under the age of 18, according to Dubai Rescue Police statistics.
"Children are more difficult to guard, especially those who are not attended by their parents," said Anshad Haneefa, a 29-year-old lifeguard, who has worked at Le Meridien Al Aqah for six years. "They run around and one needs to keep a close eye on them to prevent accidents."
Dulip Yanasiri, a lifeguard at the Atlantis hotel, said a main challenge of the job was the language barrier.
"Some people - especially tourists from other countries - cannot speak English, which makes it difficult to convey the message to them. This, coupled with a lack of awareness, complicates our job and compromises water safety," he said.
Taharanga Gunarathna, who has been working as a lifeguard for 14 years, said more equipment - like jet skis and rescue boats - was needed to better equip lifeguards on beaches, which, he said, are more difficult to guard than swimming pools. "It is important to have good equipment, especially when there is an accident involving three or four people," he said.