John Byrne interview re: Grand Bend beach lifeguards

If it is foreseeable, it is preventable.
– Lifesaving Society Canada, Ontario Branch

This is the third year in a row someone has drowned at Grand Bend, and each drowning happened after lifeguards went off duty. To help prevent deaths in the future, Lambton Shores last fall commissioned a Lifesaving Society report, and recently purchased life rings, a measure witnesses believe could have helped save at least one of the victims. The Lifesaving Society has audited the facility, will review policies and procedures, and will interview staff. Their report is due this fall. Typically they recommend lifeguards or rescue equipment. The Grand Bend Strip spoke with Lambton Shores Chief Administrative Officer John Byrne about the situation.

Casey Lessard: I understand you are buying life rings for the beach. What is the status of that?
John Byrne: They went up last Friday (Aug. 1). There are four stations, and we bought a dozen of them in anticipation that some of them will be stolen, and one was stolen that very evening. We’re just replacing them to keep them stocked until we get the report from the Lifesaving Society and can plan for this for future years. It’s an interim measure at this point. They’re about $100 a piece.
The Lifesaving Society was seen as a measure of saying, Okay, let’s do this thoroughly and have professionals come in and objectively look at this and see what can we do to improve things. They were also asked, Look, if there are things that are obvious to you and that we should be doing immediately, please let us know and we’ll do those; don’t wait for the final report. As it turns out, there was a tragic event in tragic circumstances. Certainly a life ring is something people can go to. It’s a lot more difficult than what meets the eye in turns of running to get a life ring and tossing it in time to get it to somebody. I don’t want to say it’s to pacify anybody, but it’s certainly there and we’re going to see if the Lifesaving Society recommends more, less, or different deployment of those or what.
CL: In terms of lifeguards, what is the view of whether they should be working longer?
JB: That’s all part and parcel of the Lifesaving Society. What we’ve done in terms of a protocol was just follow what preexisted pre-amalgamation, and what was going on previously in Grand Bend, and carried that on. We always interview and talk to the lifeguards before and after seasons to figure out what can we do different, and that’s why we’re changing lifeguard stands and we provided new surfboard equipment and so on and so forth. The frustrating thing is that everybody can come in after the fact and suggest this, that and the other thing. As I said, that’s why we wanted this done professionally by the Lifesaving Society and we’re going to go from there.

CL: So, do you see it as a coincidence that each of the last three years, somebody has died after the lifeguards have gone off-duty.
JB: Again, let me ask you the question, what time should they be on in your mind?
CL: My attitude is, if there are people on the beach in a strong enough mass of numbers…
JB: What’s that number for you? Again, these are all subjective things. It’s easy to say, but you come down there, you look around and see that there are no lifeguards sitting in the lifeguard stands. Does that register with you that maybe there are no lifeguards on duty, number one. You look at the water conditions, the high wave activity going, Gee, I’m not sure that’s the safest place to go swimming. Or do you just throw caution to the wind and go running into the lake saying, Let’s see what will happen?
CL: But a lot of people will swim until sundown, and I think sundown is a reasonable…
JB: This isn’t a budgetary thing at all as some people have implied. It’s based on what has happened before. For most people, families and so forth, that’s the dinner hour and they’re less likely to access the beach after hours.

CL: The Lifesaving Society has said they leave it up to the municipality based on the statistics they have…
JB: I haven’t read the report. I haven’t seen the report. I haven’t talked to them either. We’re leaving them free to interview us and I haven’t heard a thing from them in terms of what they’re recommending.
CL: They allow the municipality to decide based on statistics you collect on how much your beach is used, so do you keep track of those stats based on the number of people who are using the parking lots or the number of people that come to the town?
JB: The lifeguards make assessments all the time. That’s why they expand or shrink their coverage areas, and they notify people to move in and deploy their lifeguards accordingly. There’s a certain deployment during the week and at weekends and holiday weekends they ramp up their lifeguard decisions they make. We don’t interfere with how they’re going to be doing it. If the lifeguards came back to us and said, We need to be on until 9 o’clock, we’d present that to council and see whether we can do it.
CL: So what is the turnaround time on that? If they want to be on beyond 5 o’clock any day, do they have to come to council and wait for a council meeting to decide that, or do they have the authority to do that?
JB: Well, again, I couldn’t answer that. You have to think about that. Are you suggesting that we give total attitude to lifeguards to determine their hours of deployment? They try to work with us…
CL: You just said you give them discretion to decide what their deployment is. Who’s deciding their deployment then?
JB: They decide their deployment meaning where they’re dispersed on the beach.
CL: My point is, if there are still 10,000 people on the beach at 5 o’clock, do the lifeguards leave?
JB: The lifeguards will announce on the PA system that they’re done. There are different hours for the weekend.
You could fence the beach off. Tell everybody to get off the beach, lock the gates and walk away. Do you think somebody’s not going to climb that fence after hours and go in swimming? And are we responsible for that? So should we have 24-hour surveillance and security people around there? This is why we’re trying to figure out what’s the reasonable thing to do. Let’s get it right, let’s not fly by the seat of our pants and react to things. Let’s figure out from the professionals what we should be doing.

CL: So what is the municipality’s measure of liability when drownings happen in Lambton Shores water?
JB: There’s always a liability… again… you know, we don’t determine where liability comes. If people want to sue the municipality for something that has occurred, that is their right to do. The courts will sort out and attribute liability. That’s not something we assess. We’re not making decisions based on that. It’s, Are we doing the right things? We think based on past experience, past discussions with lifeguards, the response has been reasonable. You get extreme circumstances. Do the municipality and the council feel terrible about a drowning on the beach? What do you think? (pause) What do you think?
CL: You can tell me.
JB: (sighs) Okay.
CL: I used to be a lifeguard at a pool and we were always on until 8 o’clock.
JB: And what happens if someone climbs the fence at 8:30? We’ve had people drown at pools, too. They jump the fence after hours and so forth. There’s no easy answers to this. There’s no perfect solution. That’s why we’re working with professionals. We’ll see what the report says, and we’re going to implement their recommendations.

CL: Does it not seem like a little too much time goes by between commissioning a report last November and getting a report after this summer?
JB: Does council wish it could be faster? Sure.
CL: You were saying earlier that it’s not a budgetary issue…
JB: It’s not a budgetary issue. This is not a matter where we’re putting people at risk for the sake of the limited amount of dollars that we’re spending on this thing. That’s foolish. Council’s never made such a decision to say, Let’s risk this and cut it back here. They’ve always followed through and that’s why we have these reports from the lifeguards about what’s going on and what we can do to improve.

While Byrne did not have figures on hand, we followed up with an email asking for specifics, and received these responses:
1) Lifeguard hours during the week and on weekends/holiday weekends?
Noon to 5 p.m. Mon.-Thurs. and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fri, Sat, & Sun and holiday Mondays.

2) Start and end date for lifeguard season?
Lifeguards start the 2nd last Friday of June till Labour Day Monday.

3) Peak number of vehicles parked in beachfront lots this summer or last, during lifeguard hours and during off-duty hours?
No data available.

4) Average pay per hour for a lifeguard at Grand Bend?
Wages for lifeguards range between $15.00 to $18.00 per hour.

5) Total income from beachfront parking lots for the year?
We generate approximately $350,000.00 from the parking lots each year depending on weather, but it must be kept in mind that these revenues are not necessarily beach specific as they serve the downtown commercial areas as well. The monies generated go to offset operating costs and retiring of capital debt for the Beach House etc.

6) Current budget for lifeguards per year?
The Beach Patrol Budget is about $48,000.00 annually.