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Teaching smart water-safety practices

Objective is to prevent drownings

Instructor Rachel Klassen, 22, swims with her students at Pauingassi First Nation last week. Klassen teaches drowning prevention and swimming lessons.

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Instructor Rachel Klassen, 22, swims with her students at Pauingassi First Nation last week. Klassen teaches drowning prevention and swimming lessons. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

Rachel Klassen is spending this summer teaching people how not to drown.

And it's a lot more difficult than it sounds.

Klassen, 22, is one of seven Lifesaving Society Manitoba instructors who are delivering the branch's Northern Water Smart program in 36 remote and northern Manitoba communities. The program, in its ninth year, includes teaching the Swim to Survive program to children, as well as instructing adults in the boat operator accredited training and emergency first aid.

Drowning is the third-leading cause of unintentional deaths for Canadians under 60 years of age.

Over 80% of drowning victims are men.

55% of all victims are between the ages 18 and 49.

At the time of drowning, more than 60% of victims were engaged in recreational activities.

Of these activities, the most common were swimming (23%), fishing (18%), and power-boating (18%).

Over half of all drownings in Canada occur during the summer period.

Alcohol is involved with 37% of boating fatalities.

"The Swim to Survive program has three main skills -- rolling into the water, treading water for one minute and swimming for 50 metres -- these are the main skills that they would need, if they were to fall in the water, to save themselves," said Klassen, a student in the University of Winnipeg's education program. "That's the goal, help them learn enough skills to save themselves if they ever fell into water. If they're interested in (swimming) technique and going further, we can do that, too."

She said education is needed to prevent drownings -- knowing the dangers and knowing what to do. She talks with children about not diving in shallow or unknown water, safe swimming areas, the dangers of currents and the importance of older children watching out for younger children near water.

"In these areas, every community has direct access to water. Usually, you walk outside and there's a lake right there," said Klassen who has taught at Pauingassi and Lake Manitoba First Nations this summer and will be teaching at Little Grand Rapids next week.

On July 5 alone, three Manitoba men died in separate water-related incidents in the Steep Rock River near the Shoal River Reserve, Clearwater Lake near The Pas and Lake of the Woods. All three are being investigated as possible drownings.

National Drowning Prevention Week is July 19 to 27 and Lifesaving Society Manitoba CEO Carl Shier said there is a reason a week is dedicated to drowning awareness and prevention in the middle of the summer.

"The highest week is about the third week in July. To have some drownings already is so tragic," Shier said. "Most drownings occur between two and 15 metres from the point of safety. That's a pool edge, a dock edge, an overturned boat."

Shier said drowning is usually preventable with common sense and logic.

"It can be as simple as putting on a life-jacket when in a boat; that can save a life. We really reinforce the message that when the boat is underway, people should always put on a life-jacket or PFD," he said. "Swimmers drown. They can overextend their abilities or don't realize what cold water does to their muscle ability."

He said another key part of drowning prevention is knowing what it looks like when someone is in distress. It's not a bunch of thrashing, like on TV.

"Often drowning is so silent and you can only see distress in their facial features and not their hand movements," Shier said.

"People drown close to points of safety because the body goes vertical and goes straight down. They're not going to yell. It's not this thrashing and waving. In many cases, they don't say a thing. It's silent and they just disappear (under the water)."

He said the Lifesaving Society has a program called On Guard and Red Cross has one called Water Watchers, in which one person in a group or gathering at a pool or lake is designated to watch over the swimmers, especially children. This person won't be cooking or distracted by an electronic device and will be watching those in the water.

Last summer, the Northern Water Smart program reached 599 children in 36 communities. A total of 402 adults were instructed in emergency first aid and 258 in the BOAT program. Klassen said she was working in God's Lake Narrows last summer when a resident told her how the program has been impacting his community.

"He said in his lifetime, he's seen a huge improvement in the survival rate of people who were stabbed or drowning, just from knowing the most basic things like how to put pressure on a bleed (a cut) or people doing CPR once they take someone out of the water," said Klassen. "That was so encouraging to hear that this program is making a difference."

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