Child drowning in swimming pool
Child drowning in swimming pool iStock

Arutz Sheva spoke with lifeguard Elisheva Ben Ze'ev about the reasons why so many drownings and near-drownings occur in swimming pools each year - and what Israel can do about it.

Ben Ze'ev is an American Red Cross certified lifeguard, swim instructor, and lifeguard instructor. After immigrating to Israel in 2002, she took the relevant Israeli courses, and currently holds dual certification in swim instruction and lifeguarding. Ben Ze'ev also runs the Golan's Nachshon Swim School.

According to Magen David Adom, there have been 105 near drownings and 12 drownings since the beginning of the summer. In addition, 3 people were treated in critical condition, 11 in severe condition, and 79 in moderate and light condition.

Earlier this month, a nine-year-old boy drowned in a public Be'er Sheva pool - because the lifeguards weren't watching. On Tuesday, police detained two Herzliya lifeguards for questioning, following the drowning of a man about the age of 80 at the city's country club, .

Two of the suspects served as lifeguards in the pool during the drowning and the third detainee is the country-club manager.

"What's the main problem you see?"

"There are countless drownings in Israel every year," Ben Ze'ev said. "And there are drownings that happen because parents don't know how to take care of their kids when they go to the beaches or to the pool. There's no awareness or education. And on top of that, the pool lifeguards are poorly trained."

"How do you know that pool lifeguards are poorly trained?"

"Because I was trained as one. I took the course. I saw what they are taught and what they are not taught. There's no curriculum, there's no course, there's no book - and the qualifications necessary for becoming a lifeguard are basically that you know how to swim fast.

"They don't teach you how to deal with distraction, they don't teach you how to deal with fatigue, or how to man zones. They don't teach you how to be an effective lifeguard, or the different types of drowning you might see. They just teach you how to swim fast - how to catch someone and how to swim fast.

"Pool lifeguards here don't know how to save people. They don't know how to be an effective lifeguard, they don't know how to deal with people, and they don't know how to deal with parents. That's why when you talk to the lifeguards, they will turn their back on the pool. That's wrong.

"When I took the course, there were women in the course and there were men in the course. And whenever we were paired up to practice saving, they would pair the men with the men and the women with the women, based on height and weight.

"When we played victim, you had to arch your back, lift your chin up and kick, to make it easier for the person who's saving you to do it faster."

Lifeguard (illustrative)

"I thought victims don't move."

"Victims don't move, but we were also never taught how to get this person out of the water, how to deal with a panic attack, or how to deal with spinal injuries," Ben Ze'ev explained.

"When I took the Israeli course, I had already worked as a lifeguard for many years. In the Israeli course, we were taught either to lift their chin up or to grab them underneath their armpits and swim with a kind of sidestroke. And I asked my instructor at the time, 'What about a spinal injury, what do you do?'

"He said, 'You be careful.' And I said, 'No, if you lift his chin you just gave him a spinal injury. You're telling me to lift my back and kick. I'm training on a woman who's my size - what if I have someone who's larger than me? I'll only lift someone who's my size and knows how to kick?'

"In my Red Cross course, the final test was saving the instructor. He was a big guy, and we had to get in the water and save him. He didn't help us by kicking. We used a tube.

"The one thing they teach you, the only thing that is really good about the Israeli course, is that the participants have to be excellent swimmers. That's it."

Ben Ze'ev also said that it's nearly impossible to become a lifeguard instructor in Israel - even if you have credentials and experience from abroad.

"I wanted to train lifeguards in this country and I was shocked to find out that there's no course to learn to become a lifeguard instructor," she said. "It's just some guy - maybe about four or five people in the entire country who do it."

"There's no course. It's just like a club you can't get into. I can't get into it, I can't become a lifeguard instructor."

"How did these five people become lifeguard instructors? They made a club?"

"Yeah. And every time I called them and asked them how they became lifeguard instructors, I got roundabout answers.

"I called the Ministry of Education and I asked a lot of people, and the only thing I got answered is that you need to have more schooling and degrees than a doctor. You need to be a physical education instructor for five years, have a masters degree, and have a lot of things that are ridiculous.

"I've tried to get in touch with someone. I wanted to go to Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home), because hes Minister of Education. He's impossible to get a hold of. I've tried.

"This should be spoken about, teachers should be spoken to, students should be talking about water safety. But it never happens."

Can he save himself? iStock

"So the reason so many drownings happen is because of bad pool lifeguards?"

"If you go to a pool you won't see a backboard - a real backboard, to get someone out of the water. No such thing exists," she explained. "There were two drownings, horrific drownings that just happened. There was a 9-year-old who drowned, and there were two lifeguards. They were on duty, and they weren't at the pool. Because we're too lax. They were on duty but they weren't there.

"Now as a personal thing, there was a kid who started drowning at a pool that I teach in. The lifeguard was not there. By coincidence, I was there and I pulled him out of the water.

"Not only was the lifeguard not there - he was smoking a cigarette - the mother was sitting there on her phone and wasn't even watching her child.

"The reason why people are drowning in the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) is that parents don't understand that you need to watch your children all the time. Putting your child in a lake in a little tube is not enough.

"There was another horrific drowning that happened not far from here two summers ago. A ten-year-old boy who drowned, and they found the kid at the end of the day, when the lifeguards was closing up the pool.

"This child was with a school - they had all left the pool and he was still in the water. That is unacceptable. The teachers are not taught how to deal with kids in the water. The lifeguards are not taught how to deal with kids in the water."

"In other words, the key is water safety education."

"One of the things that I do in my school, which is paramount, is teach the kids that before you go in the water you need to ask your parents' permission, because they need to know that you're in the water. And as we teach the kids, we teach the parents. The parents say, 'Oh my gosh you're right, why did I not think of that?'

"There is simply no water safety education in this country. People are not told what to do. Parents come in to go swimming, they put their child in a rubber tube or in swimmies and they swim away. They come to do their laps and they let their kid do their thing.

"This is not taught in schools, the Ministry of Education doesn't teach their educators how to be in and around water."

"We see that there's a serious problem. How do you think we can solve it?"

"Education. You need to educate the teachers so that they know how to be with kids around water. When they go on a hike, when they go to river, they need know how to help the kids, and the kids need to know how to help themselves. There's no water safety education in this country.

"Kids need to learn basic water safety things: They need to know to alert a parent every time they go in the water. They need to know that they can't just go into a pool's deep end.

"But also, the standards have to change."

"What do you mean by standards?"

"When I worked as a head lifeguard, I fired someone who was on their phone, immediately and without question. You come in, and your phone is off.

"Lifeguards have to be managed. They need to be taught to deal with distractions, being in the sun, and that when you are on duty you are not sitting, you are standing.

"There need to be standard things that lifeguards are taught. I realize that America and Israel are two different countries, but in America, the Red Cross revamps their course every five years. There's a committee and they go through the course and say, 'This is working, this isn't, how can we change it, how can we make it better?'

"The pool lifeguard course here in Israel has not been changed in years. I have never seen it different and all I see is it getting worse.

"When I worked here as a lifeguard I would come with my rescue tube because I know what I am capable of doing and what I am not capable of doing. Every time I came on duty, I brought my tube and I stood there with my tube.

"I think lifeguards should be working with tubes an not relying on their own strength to get people out.

"I've been actively fighting to change this for many years, but it's not being changed. Nobody is working on looking at what the problem is and why so many people are drowning each year.

"There are people who are very upset about what's happening but nothing is changing. There needs to be enforcement, because in the end it all comes down to money.

"There's a law that if you have more than a certain number of people in the water, you need another lifeguard. But nobody keeps the law. I was a lifeguard with 150 kids in the water, none of whom knew how to swim. We were two lifeguards, me and another woman. I called the coordinator and told him that it's unacceptable - I couldn't see everyone, I couldn't talk to the staff around me.

"No one is enforcing it, so pools won't pay for another lifeguard to be on duty. No one is going around to make sure these people are keeping the law."

Children swimming

Swimming lessons are a separate issue, Ben Ze'ev said, but they are also faulty. Swim classes often have eight to ten - or even twelve - children per group. Safety standards, she said, limit the number to six. And children need to know how to swim to the wall, flip on their backs, and call for help - but none of those things are taught in standard Israeli swimming lessons.

Though it may sound obvious, she said, children in Israel don't know when they should be in deep water and when they should not be.

"Do you remember doing the deep end test, and how proud you were when you finally passed?" Ben Ze'ev asked me. "I remember. I worked so hard to pass that test. But here kids don't know. There's no deep end test at all."

"I see so many kids who should not be in deep water, and I take them out. Kids don't know this, parents don't know this, and the teachers and lifeguards don't know this because they were never taught, either. And all this is about lifeguarding, not swim instruction."

"We need to teach swimming properly but that comes second. The teachers are making things up, they are basically winging it."

How can we keep Israel's pools safe?

Besides for the national water safety week she'd like to see implemented, Elisheva also has three simple but life-changing suggestions for how to improve water safety in just a few weeks:

The first suggestion is for parents to watch their children when they are in the water - every second.

"Parents have to watch their children. If you have three children - bring a second adult," she said. "It's not a babysitter. Parents need to watch their children every second they're in the water."

Her second suggestion is to ensure lifeguards watch the pool constantly, and don't leave the area, smoke, or use their smartphones.

But it's her third suggestion - obvious to most North Americans - which will really help camps and schools keep children safe:

The "buddy system."

When a large group goes to a pool, the teacher pairs the students up, and each student is responsible for making sure he can see his buddy at all times. Every fifteen minutes, the lifeguard blows his whistle and each student finds their buddy. Before the group goes anywhere - the students pair up and walk with their buddies, Ben Ze'ev explained.

"If there had been a buddy system, that ten-year-old would not have been found at the end of the day," she said. "The teacher didn't even notice he was missing. The lifeguard didn't even see him. All it takes is a buddy system. It's so simple.

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