Senior officials in Clare County Council are reluctant to give “any commitments we can’t stand over” when it comes to engaging full-time lifeguards at coastal locations.
Separate motions were tabled by Cllr Mary Howard (FG) and Cllr PJ Ryan (IND) at Monday’s meeting of Clare County Council seeking the provision of full-time lifeguards from May right through to September at all nine Blue Flag beaches.
Full-time lifeguard service began at Lahinch, Spanish Point, Fanore and Kilkee on June 5th and runs seven days a week until Tuesday August 31st. The service commenced at White Strand Miltown Malbay, White Strand Doonbeg, Cappa, Mountshannon, Ballycuggeran and Ballyalla on the same day for weekend cover, the full-time service will begin on Monday June 28th plus at Seafield and Bishops Quarter and runs until the end of August.
All nine Blue Flag beaches will also have lifeguard cover for the first two weekends of September this year.
Early indications are that the “very busy summer bathing season” of 2020 will be replicated this year, senior engineer Cyril Feeney outlined. Various factors such as water temperature, sea state conditions and beach visitors in May and September influence the provision of the lifeguard service, he said. No commitment to a service in September could be issued, Cyril admitted
Feeney added that every lifeguard who has passed their interview process has been employed, “A more fundamental issue is the fact that the vast majority of our lifeguards each year are drawn from the 17 to 23 year old cohort. They are in full-time education and are simply not available to provide a full lifeguard service in the month of May or June or fulltime in the month of September as they are either sitting exams or attending or returning to secondary school or university”.
Staycations will lead to busier beaches in Clare, Cllr Howard predicted. She and Cllr Ryan both referenced the recent scare in Lahinch were local surfers had to deputise in the absence of lifeguards. Cllr Ryan commended the local authority for their response to this incident.
A repeat scenario cannot occur, Cllr Shane Talty (FF) insisted. “We can’t be in the same place next May. I don’t think the response is adequate. We’re into a changed world, there’s a societal change and how people enjoy their social time outdoors”. Addition of extra resources will be difficult, Cllr Ian Lynch (IND) acknowledged as he flagged that the bathing season is now all-year round.
Plans are in place to look at the model used in Australia where a professional resource works with a voluntary highly trained group, Cllr Joe Garrihy (FG) revealed. Unpredictable weather in Ireland serves as another headache, Cllr Pat Daly (FF) commented, “if we had four weeks of rain in May we wouldn’t be talking about it”.
More ambition is required from the Council, Cllr Cillian Murphy (FF) stated. “We need to look at how we resource the month of September and weekends, a 16 degree Wednesday in May will not be as busy as the weekend in May. We don’t have an appropriate symbol for when we can’t swim outside of bathing season. Rather than expecting surfers out to save people, we need a symbol to say it is not safe to swim”.
Having swum in Lahinch on the day that in excess of 20 rescues were carried out by volunteers, Cllr Joe Killeen (FF) recalled that it was “extremely dangerous”. Further support for the proposal was echoed by Cllr Donna McGettigan (SF) and Cllr Johnny Flynn (FG).
Praise for the lifeguards who “responded so quickly when we asked them if they could come in full-time rather than just weekends” was voiced by Director of Service, Carmel Kirby. Plans will be reviewed after the summer for next year, “I didn’t want to give any commitment that we can’t stand over, we are relying on third level students and Leaving Certificate students”.
Council Chief Executive, Pat Dowling stated, “the strength of an organisation lies in its ability to deal with the unexpected. COVID has taught us one thing, it has taught us to have a look at what we do and how we do it, I think the landscape has changed”. He continued, “From next year we need to review how it’s done and see can we do it better. The sand has shifted somewhat in this situation, we now have to look at it in the context of next year and how we can do it better”.