To get a clearer understanding of what lifeguards can and can’t do when foolhardy swimmers put themselves at risk, we decided to speak to Phuket Lifeguard Service Chief, Prathaiyuth Chuayuan.
What can lifeguards do if a tourist enters dangerous waters?
We can warn them verbally and with hand gestures to tell them that it is a dangerous area. Sometimes lifeguards use a whistle to signal a warning and try to get them to move out of the dangerous water.
Can lifeguards call police to assist them if people ignore their warnings?
Yes, lifeguards can call for help from the police, because people respect the police in uniform and believe them. For example, a few years ago at Kata Beach, we had many problems with people drowning and needing to be rescued. The tourists were just not listening to us, but then we got help from the police to tell them that they cannot swim in the dangerous areas.
What people can do if they see people that need help in the water and there is no lifeguard on duty?
The first thing you can do is yell for help, and hopefully someone can alert a lifeguard in the area. If you get no response, you can try to throw a rope or something that floats so they can grab onto it. You should also call the police emergency numbers 1169 or 1555, or get someone to call for you. You can also call the Tourist Police on 1155 and talk to someone in English.
How often do people ignore lifeguard warnings and red flags to go swimming in dangerous surf?
In Patong, we find that about 15-20 per cent of people ignore or do not understand lifeguard warnings. We find that about the same percentage of Russian tourists will understand the lifeguard’s warning but choose to ignore it and swim anyway.
We also find that about 10% of Chinese tourists have trouble understanding the meaning of the red “No Swimming” flags. Perhaps 5% of all people on the beach at first do not understand the warnings and that they cannot swim, but usually they realise in a day or two that the beaches are closed for their safety.
Which beaches have the highest incidents of rescues or drownings, and are there any common factors linking the people that get into trouble while swimming at the beach?Karon Beach is probably the worst for drowning and rescues, and it seems that people from about 27 years old through to 55 get into trouble most often. Russian tourists are probably the worst offenders, maybe it’s because they cannot speak English, but often the will just ignore warnings and swim anyway.
Chinese tourists often don’t understand what the lifeguards are trying to tell them. Sometimes we have to just point to the red flag and use body language to try to warn them. Although now, some of the Patong Beach lifeguards can speak a little bit of Chinese and Russian, so this is improving.
Are lifeguards allowed to use force to stop people swimming on closed beaches?
We do not have the legal power to stop people from entering the water, but if a lifeguard can clearly see that it is very risky for them to enter the water, then we will physically stop them.
We can also call the police to have them order someone to leave the beach if they keep ignoring our warnings.
If lifeguards warn a person not to go in the water, and the person ignores them and ends up in trouble and needs rescuing, are lifeguards obliged to try to save that person?
We would never refuse to help someone that is drowning. Even if we have told them many times not to go into the water, if they get into trouble, we will rescue them. Sometimes it seems that tourists do not value their own lives, but as lifeguards it is our duty to protect these people from themselves.
Do you have a general safety message for everyone who goes to the beach in Phuket?
We want to work to communicate better with all tourists to help them understand the dangers of the beach. We would like there to be more signs in different languages at the airport to inform tourists. They could say something like, “Swim only between the red and yellow flags and enjoy your holiday in Phuket.” We also want to encourage tour guides to inform their tourists about beach safety.