Toddler drowns in public pool

By Alice Hudson

A two-year-old boy has drowned at a public swimming pool in Auckland, despite a team of five paid lifeguards being on patrol.

Water Safety New Zealand, New Zealand Recreation Association, the Department of Labour, police and the coroner are investigating the death of Harlem Ru-Meti who drowned last weekend at the Massey Park Aquatic Centre, in Papakura, south of Auckland. The pool is also conducting an internal investigation.

Aquatic safety experts say Harlem's death highlights widespread confusion about the role of lifeguards at public swimming pools. They said it was important to remember that it was impossible for lifeguards to watch every swimmer at every second. Parents were ultimately responsible for the safety of their children while in and around water.

Harlem drowned while seven staff were working at the popular wave pool complex, including five lifeguards.

The accident happened quickly and, although the toddler was pulled out of the water and given CPR by lifeguards and ambulance crew, attempts to resuscitate him failed.

The child's grandmother, whom the Herald on Sunday has agreed not to name, said the family had not yet begun to come to terms with their loss.

The child's mother was too distressed to talk about what happened.

"My daughter blames herself. We are all barely living at the moment, just taking things day by day.

"I can't put into words right now how we are feeling but raw is probably the closest," she said.

She said her daughter, in her mid twenties, had not yet spoken about what happened that night and was haunted by the memory.

Harlem's young cousins were also at the pool, she said, and had been traumatised by the events.

Today, little Harlem "should have turned three," the boy's grandmother said.

They were still planning to gather in Harlem's honour, but "I don't know if there will be many smiles."

Harlem's tangi was held in Northland this week. The family wore blue T-shirts printed with Harlem's smiling face.

Judy Tipping, aquatic manager for Community Leisure Management, an organisation that has the management contract for Massey Park Aquatic Centre, said the death was a terrible tragedy.

"All our thoughts are with the family of the two-year-old boy."

The pool was closed last Sunday to be blessed by a kaumatua and the pool's manager and other staff had taken leave last week.

"Our staff are hurting ... but what I can say is that they did everything that was asked of them on the night. It's a tragedy all round."

She refused to comment further on the death while investigations continued but said water safety and supervision at pools was an issue that needed to be further highlighted. "At any public facility in New Zealand, at all times, children under five must be within arms' reach of their caregiver or parent."

This was the first drowning at Massey Park, she said.

Matt Claridge, general manager of Water Safety New Zealand, said up to 20 children were pulled from the country's public swimming pools every year. "And that doesn't include those who don't need to go to the hospital. It's certainly a big concern."

He refused to point the finger over Harlem's death. "It's an unfortunate incident everyone wishes hadn't happened. The pool has excellent management systems in place and the staff are well trained. We need to review it and hopefully learn from it ... you can obviously assume that because he was retrieved from the water that he wasn't under direct supervision [for a short time]."

A month's training is sometimes all it takes to become a qualified pool lifeguard. And on some days it's common for one guard to be responsible for up to 60 swimmers.

Water Safety New Zealand general manager Matt Claridge confirmed there was no set swimmer-to-lifeguard ratio.

Water Safety New Zealand and the NZ Recreation Association also helped individual pool facilities to set up supervision and safety protocols on a case by case basis, he said.

"The National Pool Lifeguard award is four unit standards, plus a first aid certificate. Each facility manages and runs its own training programmes."

Lifeguards must show they can:

* Perform aquatic rescue techniques.

* Intervene to prevent an emergency.

* Respond to an emergency.

* Supervise patrons.

* Lifeguards are often trained as teenagers and receive ongoing support.

* The Government has increased funding for a programme called Gateway, a transition work experience initiative for year 11 and 12 students.

* There are more than 270 public pools in New Zealand.


* November, 2006. Miranda Hot Springs. A Tuakau boy celebrating his fifth birthday was pulled from the water. Ambulance staff revived him but he died later in hospital.

* November, 2003. Waingaro Hot Springs. A two-year-old drowned. An inquest criticised the pool's safety measures.

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