Water safety advocate speaks out about bringing lifeguards back to Wasaga Beach
A water safety advocate is speaking out about about bringing lifeguards back to Wasaga Beach, Ont. and has erected a billboard in the area to support his efforts.
John Watt, 69, was a lifeguard at Wasaga Beach for three years from the late 60s to early 70s.
He’s been campaigning to bring the lifeguard system back to the town since the ’90s, when the program was shuttered.
“The lifeguard system in Wasaga took four to five decades to build, and it started back in the late 1950s,” Watt said. “To see that all torn down, ripped apart…it just didn’t seem right. That’s what started my unplanned advocacy.”
“People have no idea [of] the professional, first-class system we had. I try to make the public aware of that.”
Since the beginning of July, two people have drowned in Wasaga Beach.
Watt erected a billboard this year to support his efforts in bringing back lifeguards to Wasaga Beach.Provided/John Watt
Global News reached out to Wasaga Beach Mayor Nina Bifolchi for comment and received the following response from the town’s communications officer Michael Gennings: “The town does not know all of the details about the two individuals who died and so we will not be commenting on the matter or the issue of lifeguards.”
In an email, Gennings said Wasaga Beach’s focus is on “water safety education.” He provided Global News with an example of its beachfront sign that says “swimming area is not supervised” and its waterfront safety brochure.
Global News also reached out to Ontario Parks, which is responsible for a portion of the beachfront, for comment but was told an interview couldn’t be arranged. However, Lindsay Davidson, spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, provided some information in an email.
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“While Ontario Parks does not provide lifeguards or a beach patrol in designated public swimming beaches in provincial parks, information and education promoting waterfront safety is provided to visitors,” Davidson wrote.
“Designated public swimming beaches are posted with notices that there are no lifeguards. Additionally, the Town of Wasaga Beach has assisted Wasaga Beach Provincial Park with waterfront safety by posting a warning flag for swimmers at the mouth of the Nottawasaga River; a high risk area outside of the designated swimming areas.”
According to Watt, however, the signs are not enough. He’s hoping the complete lifeguard system is revitalized in Wasaga Beach.
“Ultimately, I would like to see the program that we once had, which was a professional, beach-patrolled lifeguard system with high towers that can respond within seconds,” Watt said.
Lifeguards after a shift in Wasaga Beach in about 1969-1970.Provided/John Watt
In the email, Davidson said safety in the water can be affected by a number of different factors — including number of visitors, weather conditions, swimmer experience and location — all of which are independent of whether lifeguards are present.
“To promote water safety, Ontario Parks has a free loan program for personal floatation devices in over 65 provincial parks, including Wasaga Beach Provincial Park,” Davidson wrote. “Many of the busiest provincial parks have maintenance staff or park wardens on beaches, who are trained in first aid or to initiate calls for local emergency services.”
Watt and his wife initially put up three billboards about bringing back lifeguards to Wasaga Beach last year. This year, they’ve only put one up, although Watt said he’s considering erecting another due to the two drownings that happened this month.
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“You have to keep in mind that this is not a high cost program. This can be done very reasonably,” Watt said of the lifeguard system.
The former Wasaga Beach lifeguard pointed to the fact that there’s been near drownings, which he said can cause brain damage.
“[The] trauma to family members, victims and communities is incredible. Lifeguards do not just save lives — they save a lot of potential injuries.”
According to Watt, a drowning victim submerges within 20 to 60 seconds, and “most if not all drownings are preventable,” he said in an email.
“I have witnessed people losing loved ones and talked to them. The first thing I think about is the value of human life,” Watt added. “I’m speaking for people who have died to try to protect the living.”