This month we talk to IMRF Member John Leech, CEO, Water Safety Ireland. John describes himself as a hydrophile, a drowning prevention advocate and a lover of aquatic sports and pursuits. 

John joined the Irish Naval Service as an Executive Officer and spent almost two years training with the UK’s Royal Navy.

During his naval career, John has overseen the naval diving section and commanded L.E. AISLING & L.E. ORLA.

He was twice seconded from the Navy; first time was to sail on the NCB Ireland on Ireland’s first Whitbread Campaign and the second occasion was to sail onboard STV Asgard II, Ireland’s Sail Training Ship. 

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Navy was tasked with most offshore SAR shouts because the RNLI did not have sufficient lifeboats or boats with sufficient speed and range to reach offshore casualties, and the Coast Guard did not have any rescue boats, only providing a coast and cliff rescue service.

As a result, John was involved in numerous SAR operations as on scene commander, both inshore and offshore.

In February 2001 after twenty-one and a half years in the navy, he took up the appointment as CEO of Water Safety Ireland, which is the Statutory Body established to promote water safety in Ireland.

Shortly after he joined, he registered WSI as a charity to assist in fundraising. 

Water Safety Ireland’s mission is to promote a stronger safety culture, attitude, and behaviour for people on, in or near water, through education and training.

The organisation was originally founded in May 1945 because of the increasing number of fatal drownings nationwide and was tasked with teaching the public to swim and instructing the lifeguard service.

Our Objective

Today, Water Safety Ireland’s (WSI) main objective is to prevent drownings in every aquatic environment, from bathtubs to the ocean. In 2000, the 10-year average of drownings was 190 in one year, it is now 115.

More people can be saved from drowning through prevention than can be saved by rescue or treatment. 

The WSI welcomed the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation to all Nations of the world to develop their own Drowning Prevention Strategies, and in 2018 WSI launched theirs:

WSI’s short term goals and objectives are in our Strategic Development Plan:

Our Council and Our Working Groups

WSI has a Council of 13 voluntary members appointed by a Government Minister.  

The organisation has Rescue, Surf Rescue Boat, Lifeguard, Swimming, Education, Sports and Audit Commissions as well as working groups which are constituted mainly by volunteers and are supported by WSI’s 10 staff.  

WSI now has more than 5,300 voluntary members, who are described by John as WSI’s greatest asset. 

The working groups are established to complete a task by the WSI Council.

They normally comprise of three to four members, they are flexible, versatile, enthusiastic and energetic and always achieve their tasks or goals, with a limited life span depending on the level of work required to complete their tasks.

At present WSI has Working Groups that are tasked with governance, marketing, sourcing new premises, reviewing and writing up guidelines and manuals.

At a local level WSI volunteers work closely with the Coast Guard and Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) volunteers.

WSI also participates in the Government organised; National SAR Consultative Committee, the Navigational aids users Committee, the Marine Safety Working Group, the “Be Summer Ready” and “Be Winter Ready” Groups, and The Community Rescue Boats Liaison Group.

The Community Rescue Boats

The Community Rescue Boats Ireland (CRBI) are a nationwide group of independent voluntary rescue boats which are trained and administrated by WSI.

They are a declared resource (DR) and available to the Coast Guard, responding to emergencies in their area of operation on a 24/7/365 basis.

These teams have traditionally been set up following drowning tragedies in their communities.

WSI administers a V.A.T. Exemption programme for the boats on behalf of the Government and some of these stations have morphed into RNLI and Irish Coast Guard Stations over the years.

Their volunteers come from a variety of back grounds at various levels of administration and operations.

Ger Keeling the first CEO of the IMRF and Colins Williams former Inspector of Lifeboats in Ireland and Wales for the RNLI and retired lifeboat crew members inspects all these lifeboat stations and crews annually to ensure they are operating up to best international practice, which is why WSI’s membership of IMRF is critical to their success.

Our Water Safety Committee

 WSI’s voluntary Water Safety Committees organise swimming, lifesaving and Surf Rescue Boat training and classes both at outdoor locations e.g., beaches, lakes and rivers and in swimming pools in the winter.

They fundraise and promote water safety and local events promoting best practices e.g., wearing of lifejackets. Over 80% of boat users wear lifejackets or buoyancy aids now, 20 years ago approximately 35% would have worn them.

Our Water Safety Committees also train WSI lifeguards for both pool and beach/river, they then examine all the open water lifeguards each year for the Local Authorities who employ them both at inland and coastal sites.

Some members also run Water Safety at work courses for companies, agencies and Government Departments.

Lifesaving as a Sport and Water Safety 

WSI is the National Governing Body for the sport of lifesaving in Ireland running well over 20 competitions each year.

We send teams to the various European and World Lifesaving Championships each year and have won many medals and hold both European and World Records such is the degree of our success.

A substantial number of former lifeguards join our lifeboat service either in the Community Rescue Boats, RNLI or Coast Guard.

In recent years WSI has run a European Championships. We find that the more competitions we run the stronger and more effective and operationally prepared are our lifeguards for service.

Our Water Safety Development Officer (WSDO) are employees of the Local Authorities who are also members of our voluntary County Water Safety Area Committees.

They are a most valuable resource in terms of promoting water safety. They normally supervise their lifeguard service, ensuring that WSI completes Risk Assessments on Designated Bathing Areas (DBA) and many other aquatic environments where the public are at risk of drowning.

WSI issues a Risk Assessment report to the Local Authority for each DBA or area with recommendations regarding signage, public rescue equipment, lifeguard service and the safe management of the sites.

We have developed some education programmes over the years including our early care and learning child programme “Hold Hands  and our Primary Water Safety programme (PAWS) for primary schools, which is recognised by our Department of Education.

We have a few other Aquatics Programme for secondary schools too.

The Impact of the Global Pandemic …

The pandemic closed all our courses in swimming and lifesaving last year both in pools and outdoor venues, however this year we are going ahead with classes on our beaches, lakes and rivers to teach children to swim and understand survival and rescue techniques.

We intend commencing our winter programmes in our pools in September.

The Community Rescue Boats adapted like most Rescue Boat Organisations worldwide, as they simply had to continue with their essential work. As Lifeguards are essential workers, we have continued to run courses to qualify candidates as lifeguards to ensure the Local Authorities have enough to employ on their Designated Bathing Areas.

Over the last twenty years Water Safety Ireland has engaged with almost every section of our society to promote water safety, so the awareness amongst our public is relatively high.

We have involved our local Councillors, Members of Parliament in our work and this has reaped many benefits including and increase in ring fenced funding from Government for promoting water safety through our media activities.

Marking the first World Drowning Prevention Day

Earlier this year, Ireland was honoured and proud when the Irish and Bangladesh Missions to the UN in New York brought forward successfully the first ever resolution to the UN on Drowning Prevention. One of the first actions that Ireland took to support and recognise World Drowning Prevention Day was to light up in blue as many public buildings as possible, like what we do in green lighting on St Patricks day.

People wore blue for the day, our lifeguards and lifeboat crews painted their faces blue, and several other initiatives took place nationwide to celebrate this important day, to help bring drowning prevention in to the national and international conversation.

As we are all aware, we save far more lives through our prevention strategies than we do through rescue and treatment.

Progress Made …

In 2020, 76 people drowned, this compares to 105 in 2019 and is the lowest figure since 1936 when 73 drowned and when we had 2 million less people as the population of Ireland in 1936 was just under 3 million, when there would have been less involvement in aquatic activities than today where there is a population nearing 5 million and with very many people involved in a variety of aquatic activities.