Experts: in order to reduce the statistics of drownings, we need to work together within the existing resources.

Created with Sketch.

To bring attention to the unchanging and tragic statistics of drowning, the “Swim Safe” association and the Latvian Swimming Federation (LPF) brought together 18 representatives from various institutions, services, local governments, and non-governmental organizations on May 18 for a roundtable discussion. The topic was “Will the number of drownings and water-related injuries in Latvia be halved by 2025?” There were 26 participants in the discussion.

Zane Gemze, the founder of the “Swim Safe” association, expressed at the start of the discussion: “Since the last time we met in 2019, the statistics have remained the same. It’s crucial to meet on a broad scale to share our progress, explain the situation from our perspective, and seek solutions to bring about change. A 50% reduction in drowning statistics is entirely realistic, but it requires purposeful and coordinated cooperation among the involved parties. It should involve a range of measures – joint informational campaigns and practical training for children in swimming. At the same time, we should consider changes in regulatory frameworks.”

LPF President Aivars Platonovs noted that there is no unified action plan in Latvia. Just as we educate the public about road safety, we should also educate them about water safety, and it should be done in a coordinated manner. A unified plan with specific objectives and tasks would allow for result analysis and the more effective use of existing resources. Currently, all initiatives, including the “Drowning Prevention Strategy for 2020-2024” developed in 2019, are only at the level of non-governmental sector initiatives.

The Deputy Chief of the State Fire and Rescue Service, Jānis Grīnbergs, highlighted the significant lack of unified statistics on cases where drowning is the cause of death. According to him, detailed data could help improve the situation, as institutions would have a better understanding of the overall picture. The State Fire and Rescue Service receives calls about people in the water, and they either find them dead or rescue them, but determining the cause of death is not within their competence.

Data from the Emergency Medical Service (NMPD) and the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (SPKC) confirm that the majority of drowning victims are middle-aged men (45-55 years old). Despite a slight decrease in the number of drownings last year, which gives hope for a gradual change in societal understanding and habits, this year’s data indicate that drowning remains a significant problem. In 2022, the number of drowning victims was higher than the number of fatalities in traffic accidents, so it is essential to continue working together on the ongoing efforts, including the search for a unified coordinating institution and the implementation of the strategy.

The situation is shown by both the NMPD and the State Fire and Rescue Service – most accidents happen in home water bodies and throughout the country. Therefore, all services urge choosing safe swimming spots, acting responsibly, and mastering the basics of first aid, because drowning happens quickly, and no service can arrive within a few minutes.

Both the State Fire and Rescue Service and the representatives of the Riga and Jurmala rescue services acknowledged that the cause of alarming data on child deaths in water bodies is a lack of understanding of safety – adults actually do not supervise their children, consume alcohol near water bodies, and move around in boats, yachts, or other water transport without life jackets. Equally important is that extreme water sports enthusiasts do not use location transmitters (GPS) and it is impossible to find them in deep waters. Rescuers emphasized that appropriate changes should be made in regulatory acts, and safety equipment should be mandatory for both children and adults.

The situation regarding children’s swimming skills was explained by representatives of the State Education Content Center (VISC), Inese Bautre, and Sandra Falka. Although two modules are included in the school curriculum – both swimming lessons and safe behavior skills in/around water, they are not actually mandatory and often do not take place due to lack of infrastructure, technical support, and insufficient funding, for example, some municipalities do not have a swimming pool or lack funds for transport expenses. Unfortunately, the pandemic period, when swimming pools were closed, deprived many children of the opportunity to learn to swim, and the loss was not compensated. At the same time, representatives of VISC called on municipalities not to focus only on the existence of swimming pools but to think about how to promote children’s theoretical knowledge acquisition and to organize practical classes in open water bodies in the summer. The LPF president urged the Ministry of Education and Science to include specific funding for the organization of such practical classes in the budget.

The lack of swimming skills that are not learned in childhood is also a problem faced by rescuers on a daily basis. The head specialist of the Riga City Council Police Safety on Water and Civil Protection Department, Jānis Skrims, particularly emphasized that it is difficult to select quality employees for work on the beaches. Lifeguard training is the responsibility of each municipality, and substantial resources are invested only to teach new colleagues to swim, which is the basis for fulfilling their duties.

The Health Inspectorate’s environmental health specialist, Daina Sudraba-Livčāne, called on local governments to set up more swimming areas that meet safety requirements. Currently, the inspection oversees only 59 such areas, where official monitoring of the microbiological quality of inland and coastal swimming waters is carried out from May 15 to September 15. They also ensure that local governments implement safety requirements in these swimming areas. The specialist emphasized that swimming area managers should pay more attention to safety aspects – such as placing buoys at the appropriate depth and ensuring access for emergency transport. It would be important to combine forces and collaborate with experts, rescuers, and swimming area managers.

At the end of the discussions, it was concluded that improving the situation in the field of drowning prevention is not among the state’s top priorities, and it is unlikely that a unified monitoring and coordination system will be established at the national level in the near future. Therefore, it is crucial for all institutions working in the field of water safety to collaborate more within existing resources. For example, the State Fire and Rescue Service will inspect as many swimming areas as possible during their training, the Health Inspectorate will organize training not only for municipal employees but also for their own inspectors, and a number of other activities. It would be valuable to secure funding for the establishment of a working group that would initiate and coordinate unified efforts.

The discussion was organized by the “Swim Safely” association and the Latvian Swimming Federation in collaboration with the Health Inspectorate.

The discussion involved 26 participants representing the State Chancellery, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Education and Science, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development, the Ministry of Health, the State Fire and Rescue Service, the Emergency Medical Service, the Center for Disease Prevention and Control, the State Education Content Center, the Health Inspectorate, the SJSC “Latvian Maritime Administration”, the Riga City Council Police Safety on Water and Civil Protection Department, the Jūrmala City Council Police, the Association of Local Governments of Latvia, the Environmental Education Fund, the Latvian Swimming Federation, and the “Swim Safely” association.