The Red Cross’s recent announcement that its swimming lesson and lifeguard training programs will transition over to Lifesaving Society Canada initially came as a shock to aquatic centres in the region.
But concerns have largely been allayed and enthusiasm is building up for the change.
“We had no hints leading up to it,” said Madeline Fedora, Olds Aquatic Centre team leader, adding the news was a bit of a surprise.
The facility was already training lifeguards through Lifesaving Society programs, while delivering swim lessons through the Red Cross, Fedora said.
“It has been quite the mix among the two (organizations),” she said, adding the existing familiarity with Lifesaving Society will undoubtedly facilitate a smoother transition.
At the time she spoke with the Albertan about a week after the Red Cross’s Jan. 12 announcement, Fedora said the effort to begin the transition was just getting underway and that no timeline was yet in place.
The situation was essentially identical at the Sundre & District Aquaplex, the Didsbury Aquatic Centre, as well as the Innisfail Aquatic Centre.
“Since our facility opened, we’ve always run Red Cross swimming lessons. But we have always done our lifeguard training through the Lifesaving Society,” said Kari McQuaid, Sundre Aquaplex manager, who didn’t seem particularly concerned by the impending transition.
“We’ve been affiliated with both of them for quite some time . . . I expect it to be a smooth transition,” said McQuaid. “As far as I understand, the two programs are so similar, that it’s basically a brand change. The products are really similar, and both are good.”
Part of the process will involve communicating to parents and patrons the plan to switch over to Lifesaving Society programs from what was previously offered through the Red Cross, she said.
Perhaps a benefit to the change, she added, will be the inclusion of an assistant lifeguard training through the Lifesaving Society.
“They didn’t really have an assistant lifeguard program in the past to my understanding, whereas Red Cross did,” she said.
“So, that is something that we’re looking forward to kind of being a little bit of an asset, is that as long as we have a lifeguard on deck we’ll also be able to have an assistant lifeguard if necessary with eyes on the pool,” she said, adding that will allow anyone who’s under 16 to obtain more experience and learn some skills before officially becoming a lifeguard.
Dawn Murray, aquatic supervisor at the Innisfail Aquatic Centre, echoed similar sentiments and said the initial surprise was quickly abated by the knowledge Lifesaving Society was prepared to assist.
Murray also said there will be a level of education required for parents and the public when it comes to choosing the society’s I Can Swim Program. While other learn-to-swim programs exist, she said the society’s history and willingness to work alongside facilities makes that option “really unbeatable.”
Provided the stars align, she hopes to complete the transition prior to next September so that all the new programs line up with the start of the school year.
“We do quite a few school lessons, which is nice on its own, because otherwise they wouldn’t get lessons,” she said.
Society recognizes initial shock
“It was a big surprise for many people,” candidly acknowledged Kelly Carter, Lifesaving Society Canada’s Alberta and NWT branch CEO, during an interview.
“The one piece that probably adds some comfort, is that we’re not an unknown entity to them. It’s not like we were created out of this — we’ve been here all along. So, there’s relationships that exist with all those communities and pools and facilities,” Carter said.
“We’re here to assist with the process to make sure that it’s as smooth as possible,” he said.
Among the society’s objectives, he added, are to increase access to programs and swim lessons for children as well as focus on its drowning prevention mandate.
“Everyone deserves the right to learn to swim, and we want to support that,” he said.
The society already has a national learn-to-swim program that is the same across the country and has been in place for a long time, he added.
“The Swim for Life program first was launched in Alberta,” he said, adding the province was the first place in the country to introduce it.
Another program developed in Ontario at about the same time eventually led to the creation of the national program, he said.
“There is an Alberta connection here to this national program,” he said.
The society even already had in place a national lifeguard program as well, he added.
“All lifeguards in Canada were Lifesaving Society trained probably up until 2010 when Red Cross had launched their lifeguard program,” he said.
The transition so far, albeit still in its early stages, is coming along well, he said, adding the society has been busy meeting with its program delivery partners.
“The vast majority of them, they were definitely a little bit anxious and surprised when the announcement first came out from Red Cross,” he said.
“But now that they see there’s a plan in place, there’s program supports and materials that are in place, and the Lifesaving Society’s standing fully behind it, there’s definitely some excitement that’s growing for it.”
Carter was also quick to dispel unfounded concerns that resulted in rumours spreading on social media.
Some people, he elaborated, had been commenting online that there would be instructors losing their jobs leaving vacant positions to replace.
“That’s not the case. These instructors are being supported through their employer and through the Lifesaving Society,” he said. “It shouldn’t result in any disruptions to public programming or services.”
In its press statement, the Red Cross, which encourages its water safety and training partners to transition to the Lifesaving Society, said the decision was made to refocus more attention and resources to humanitarian demands including disaster and pandemic response, opioid harm reduction as well as providing care for seniors.
The Red Cross swimming lesson and lifeguard training programs, which are now set to wind down by December 2022, are coming to an end after 76 years. The swimming program first dived into action in 1946 in response to the roughly 1,000 drowning deaths that were recorded annually at the time — a number that since then has been halved while Canada’s population tripled.
The Lifesaving Society, said Carter, has imbedded in its programming the Canadian Swim to Survive standard.
“That standard was designed to say that once anyone has achieved that standard, they should be able to survive an unexpected fall into water,” he said, adding there over the past couple of summers have been a higher-than-average rate of media-reported drownings.
“It’s probably tied to the response to the pandemic — more people being outside and limited access to recreation facilities over that time period,” he said, adding the disconcerting trend reinforces the imperative to ensure people and especially children are able to develop the skills needed to survive a surprise fall in water.
“There is a good level of confidence in our learn-to-swim program. It’s designed to prevent people from drowning,” he said, calling the transition “just the next evolution.”