Baywatch: Lifeguards to the rescue | Raymond Azzopardi

Raymond Azzopardi from the MTA’s Product Development Directorate, responsible for managing beaches, talks about Malta’s lifeguards.

The lifeguard tower which also hosts a beach library at Font Ghadir, Sliema
The lifeguard tower which also hosts a beach library at Font Ghadir, Sliema

Few lifeguards lead the sun-drenched, chatty lifestyle you see on Baywatch. The reality of the job of a lifeguard is to keep an eagle eye on swimmers who many a time have to risk their own lives to save others.

Victims can include boaters, surfers, swimmers, and even unsuspecting sightseers swept off rocks, jetties, or piers by tumultuous surf or high swells, but the majority are unsuspecting swimmers towed out by tides.

A week after the introduction of the lifeguard service by the Malta Tourism Authority on our beaches (back in June of 2009), two young tourists who found themselves in difficulty while swimming at Golden Bay, were rescued.

But do swimmers generally tend to ignore warnings such as red flags - a uniform flag warning system advising beachgoers of potential safety risks?

Azzopardi says that "generally swimmers take note of such warnings. People do take heed of a red-flagged beach and while not everybody would stay out of the water, people who do enter the seas are more alert of sea conditions.

"However, many times one gets the obstinate few who would ignore the signs with the consequence of lifeguards on duty having to risk their own life and limb to rescue swimmers who eventually find themselves in difficulty during red-flagged days.

"On a red-on-red flagged day, lifeguards are not obliged to effect any rescue operations if conditions could be life-threatening to them.

"It is extremely important to monitor the flag warning system. Dangerous currents may exist in the water with visible indication from shore."

And what are the most common causes that lead to drowning?

"First and foremost, one always needs to be aware of the sea conditions. From the situations MTA as the authority managing the lifeguard service has experienced, the common causes of accidents is the lack of respect for the might of the sea coupled with the natural signs, i.e. breaking waves on rocky shores, windy conditions that effect the sea, or bathers with a health condition, blatantly ignored."

Which leads me to ask Azzopardi which beaches are most prone to undercurrents?

"On MTA-managed beaches, we believe that Golden Bay is quite prone to undercurrents, a fact that is pointed out in situ and one that should be respected by bathers at all times."

The job of a lifeguard isn't as glamorous as one would think it to be. Those who wish to excel at lifeguard jobs should be physically fit, taking time to exercise on a regular basis. While having the knowledge and skills of life-saving techniques and first-aid. They must be prepared to work in a variety of weather conditions - especially in the scorching heat - and must be observant, diligently surveying the area for potential dangers.

There are various courses one can undergo to qualify to be a lifeguard.

According to Azzopardi "there are both local and international courses that one can follow to qualify as a lifeguard. These would normally include - amongst others - safety at sea, first aid and rescue techniques".

I ask Azzopardi how many rescue operations have MTA's lifeguards performed since it's the service started?

"Many rescues have been performed over the years on MTA supervised beaches. These range from simple interventions to treat minor cuts and bruises, stings and jellyfish bites to more serious ones such as injuries sustained by bathers who dare to dive off high platforms.

"Many a time parents who would have lost sight of their child would generally also turn to lifeguards on duty to help perform a search."

When asked what equipment is used by lifeguards to perform rescues or if it was only a question of the human being vs the power of the ocean, Azzopardi says that "basic equipment such as first-aid box as well as floatable aids are used in rescue operations. However, since the summer of 2010, lifeguards have been equipped with oxygen masks and cylinders, spinal boards and defibrillators - equipment which may be crucial in potentially life-saving situations.

"Furthermore, MTA has placed notice boards displaying Beach Code of Conduct information on all the beaches the Authority manages.

"As from this summer we are also producing a Beach News leaflet which includes advice to bathers in point form. The leaflets explain that swimming under the influence of alcohol or drugs could be potentially dangerous, and that swimmers should not exceed the swimmer zones while individuals with health conditions, especially the elderly, should enter the water accompanied with a companion."

Does Azzopardi think there's enough enforcement and patrols performed by the police on boat owners in order to protect swimmers?

"Swimmers should swim within the designated swimmer zones. There is always room for improvement from whichever aspect one may look at any operation.

"Recently though, there appears to have been a marked improvement in this regard, with more boat owners observing related rules and regulations."