Amid Shark Attack Fears, Lifeguards Present Larger-Picture Safety Concerns
The media attention brought on by the number of violent shark attacks this summer has given the U.S. Lifesaving Association the opportunity to push a broader message about beach safety.
With the rash of reported shark attacks along the East Coast this month and the ensuing media coverage, the following tidbit from the International Wildlife Museum, while timely, probably isn’t enough to make you any less fearful of the open water: Your odds of getting killed by fireworks (1 in 340,000) are much higher than your odds of being eaten by a shark (1 in 3.75 million).
In reality, beachgoers should be more fearful of drowning than they are of coming face to face with a Great White. While 70 to 100 shark attacks happen worldwide each year—with between five and 15 resulting in death—data from the U.S. Lifesaving Association shows that more than 88,000 drowning rescues were made by lifeguards in 2014, with another 112 drowning deaths reported.
USLA, whose members include beach lifeguards and open-water rescuers, provides best practices and promotes beach safety and high standards for lifeguard training. Chris Brewster, the group’s president, said the attention around shark attacks is understandable but misguided.
“Any time there is a shark bite incident in an area where it is unusual or the shark bite is more serious like what has happened in a couple of these cases more recently, it gets a lot of attention, and there’s not really much that we can do about that,” Brewster said. “The best that we can do in these cases is use statistics to try to temper that fear and to actually, in some ways, use it as a positive learning exercise.”
The increased attention, he said, gives USLA the opportunity to push the importance of swimming at lifeguarded beaches (more than 90 of those 112 drowning deaths happened at beaches where lifeguards were not on duty) and teaching children to swim. That message, coupled with a few data points, helps the association drive its message home in the media.
“One of the statistics that we can point out is that drowning is one of the major leading causes of accidental death in the United States, particularly among kids,” said Brewster. “It’s an opportunity to open a dialogue and say, ‘Look, you really don’t have to worry so much about sharks. What you really need to worry about is teaching your kids to swim, attending a beach where there’s lifeguard protection, and just taking prudent steps when you’re in the water.’”
That said, the group does provide guidance for lifeguards on how to handle shark attacks, he said. Preventative measures are included in lifeguard training, and the extent of training can vary by location—areas that experience a higher frequency of attacks, like along the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf Coast, will have more in-depth training than somewhere like the Pacific Northwest.
USLA addressed shark attack training in a position statement released in 2002 [PDF] after a series of incidents called into question the viability of a vacation destination and the role of lifeguards during an active attack, Brewster explained.
“What we were really trying to do was come up with some guidance for lifeguards and lifeguard agencies in terms of how to deal with these kinds of incidents,” he said. “In a way it’s a best practice document for lifeguard agencies to create their own local standards that are appropriate and that [not only] adequately protect the lifeguards but also the citizens that they’re protecting.”