The Malta Independent 13 July 2024, Saturday
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Double red flags should not be ignored – ERRC Head of Operations

Sabrina Zammit Sunday, 24 July 2022, 10:00 Last update: about 3 years ago

Double red flags in swimming zones should never be ignored as there could be dangerous unseen sea currents, Emergency Response and Rescue Corps head of operations Adrian Axiak told The Malta Independent on Sunday.

World Drowning Prevention Day is commemorated tomorrow, 25 July. This global advocacy event, according to the United Nations, serves as an opportunity to highlight the tragic and profound impact of drowning on families and communities and offer life-saving solutions to prevent it. An estimated 236,000 people drown every year and drowning is among the 10 leading causes of death for children and youth aged between one and 24 years.

In an interview at the ERRC offices in Gozo, Axiak said that lifeguards should not have to put their life at risk just because people decide to ignore rough sea warnings.

“Last week, I was at Comino, and we put out a double red flag, which means that people are not allowed to swim, but we cannot force them since we are not an authority,” he said.

When bathers see a double red flag, they should refrain from swimming. He said that sometimes people do not understand why a double red flag is put up. Axiaq said that although the sea appears calm to the naked eye “sometimes strong underwater currents cannot be seen”.

Axiak said lifeguards have several tools such as jet skis, throw lines, specialised lifejackets and fins to assist them in their rescue operations. But double red flags should never, never be ignored, he insisted.

“People need to pay attention to the flags,” he said.

Axiak explained that green flags are indicative of calm waves/currents, meaning that it is safe to swim. The yellow flag means that there is a chance for some currents or waves, indicating that swimmers, who are not very confident, should remain on shore.

One red flag means that it is not safe to swim while the double red flag is a clear indication that people should not swim.

Axiak explained that after the double red flag is put up, lifeguards are not responsible for whatever happens. There have been occasions, however, that lifeguards still go to the rescue of people in difficulty, as happened a few days ago in Sliema.

The ERRC takes it upon itself to also inform people who are not present at the beach by posting regularly on their Facebook page with regards to sea safety status. Such posts are also updated several times a day since water currents change frequently.

Speaking about the many situations lifeguards face on the job, Axiak explained how the ERRC covers both Comino and Gozo.

In Comino lifeguards tend to run into more problems than they do on Gozitan beaches. This is because in Gozo there are many healthcare options which are not available on the smaller island. Apart from that, there are more locals at Gozitan beaches, whereas Comino is more popular with tourists.

The kind of issues that make people request a lifeguard’s help in Comino, both at the Blue Lagoon and Santa Maria beach, vary in severity. There are those who might have been stung by a jellyfish or cut a finger on a rock while others might have more serious issues such as fainting or suffering a grievous injury, he said.

The instructor said that there were 2,100 reported jelly fish stings in Comino since June while in Hondoq, Gozo there were only 300.

Axiak said that currently there are 13 lifeguards allocated for Comino alone.


Becoming a lifeguard

Since Axiaq became a lifeguard, back in 2009, some changes have been made to the requirements needed to become a lifeguard, one of them being that the minimum age now stands at 18 rather than the previous 16.

“Over the years the requirements changed. Today we have the international lifesaving federation (ILSF). This means that Malta is being monitored by a leading international organisation in the field,” he said.

Axiaq said that the ERRC’s training starts with basic first aid. After this, future lifeguards are introduced to courses in advanced CPR where the use of the oxygen tank as a medication tool is also taught. Other courses focus on trauma, which could lead to major bleeding, and lastly there is also physical training.

Axiak explained that the NGO offers accredited courses for lifesaving at sea, such as Water Rescue First Responder & Life Saving at Sea, which starts by teaching students how to swim and continues building up on how to eventually start saving lives.

We have had applicants who were not amazing swimmers but by the end of the course they had managed to improve tremendously,” he said.

He added that forming part of the physical assessment is a physical test where students have to swim 400 metres in eight minutes. “This is also an ILSF standard. If not reached applicants have to continue to train in order to reach this goal.”

Apart from that the NGO takes it upon itself to create real life scenarios at its headquarters in Gozo so to make students feel more prepared. At this stage students are encouraged and shown how to measure glucose levels, oxygen levels and blood pressure.

Throughout the year members also carry out a lot of volunteer work. Axiak explained that, for example, during the Sannat Feast’s horse races, to be held today, there will be an ERRC ambulance with medical first responders on stand-by.

“When it comes to lifeguarding, we have 28 lifeguards every day for eight-and-a-half hours and they are paid for their services,” he said.

Lifeguards are on duty just for the summer period. Applicants, mainly students, are offered the possibility to work as a lifeguard after completing all courses and spending a year doing volunteer work for the NGO.


An experience which has left an imprint

“The first major accident is always the one that remains stuck in your head,” Axiak said.

He recounted how when he was 16, before the introduction of the ILSF standards, he was on Comino with a colleague when they hear someone shouting for help. When they went to the location Axiak saw a girl, his age, unconscious on the rocks.

At that moment, although I had received training, I froze for five seconds until what I had learnt started to kick in as this was my first experience. In fact this is something we teach new lifeguards: to never act alone but to rather seek a colleague who is more experienced,” he said.

As they started to treat the girl, people were informing them of what had happened and that is from where they got to know that the victim had suffered a spinal injury after jumping off a cliff “like many do in the area”.

We started to treat her with oxygen and so on and she started to regain consciousness. She started to scream in pain; I can still hear them today,” he said.

He further recounted how when they stabilised her and put her on what are known as spine boards, it helped with the pain and the screaming stopped. At this point, “I started to calm down”.

Axiak said that although at that moment the whole ordeal felt like two hours in reality it lasted only 20 minutes.

He said that thanks to such experiences over his 12-year career, nowadays he is calm when such accidents happen.




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