Lifesavers say more education on beach signs, flags required after spate of NSW drownings

Lifesavers say more education on beach signs, flags required after spate of NSW drownings
  • PublishedJanuary 4, 2024

Veteran lifeguards say more education is required about flags at the beach and what they mean following a series of drownings along the New South Wales coast this summer.

Key points:

  • The spate of drownings has prompted calls for a re-think of how beaches are patrolled
  • Research suggests some people from non-English speaking backgrounds are misinterpreting signs and flags
  • Veteran lifesavers say rescues are increasingly occurring at non-patrolled sections of beaches

A shake-up of beach patrolling strategies has also been suggested — including a re-think of flag colours.

Research suggests people from non-English speaking backgrounds are misinterpreting signs and the meaning of the iconic red and yellow lifesaving flags at patrolled beaches.

Bruce Hopkins, a 30-year veteran lifeguard at Bondi Beach, said many of the 100 or so rescues performed on Wednesday this week involved people from non-English speaking backgrounds and overseas visitors who did not properly follow signage and flags. 

“70 per cent of our rescues at Bondi … have moved to Australia and then the other 30 per cent would be tourists,” he said

“The problem we have got is the amount of migrants that have moved to Australia with not a lot of water background.”

Bruce Hopkins standing outside Bondi surf lifesaving club
Veteran Bondi Beach lifeguard Bruce Hopkins.(Supplied: Bruce Hopkins)

Ken Holloway, a spokesperson for the Australian Professional Ocean Lifeguards Association & Sandon Point Surf Life Saving Club, said it was similar situation further down the coast at Wollongong.

He said the flags were usually placed in front of Sandon Point Surf Club at the northern end of the beach, but increasingly visitors from south-west Sydney were swimming at the unpatrolled southern end.

“They don’t walk 500 or 600 metres up the beach to the flagged area,” he said.

“They can’t get a car park there, for a start.

“So the two things that have to happen is that we have to better educate and also we have to change our patrolling strategy, where we have more of what they do at Bondi and on the Gold Coast, where a lifeguard or a life saver is placed every 300m along the beach,” he said.

Increased drownings

A horror start to summer has prompted a re-think around the way surf patrols are conducted along the New South Wales coast.

The has been a spate of drownings near Birubi Beach north of Newcastle, as well as a drowning at the new river beach at Penrith in Western Sydney and a suspected drowning at Congo on the Far South Coast.

Police officers next to a surf rescue car
A teenager went missing at Congo Beach after trying to save a family member.(ABC News: Adriane Reardon)

Steve Pearce from Surf Life Saving NSW said since July this year he counted 28 coastal drownings, double the number from the same period last year.

Should red and yellow flags turn green? 

A study published last month by migrant surf lifesaver Masaki Shibata and Tin Kei Wong, both from the University of Adelaide, found translation issues need to be addressed, especially for young international students facing “linguistic challenges”.

The online study of 136 domestic students and 84 international students found many misunderstood signs such as “always swim between the flags”.

“Most concerningly, 21 per cent of international students perceived the sign ‘always swim between the flags’ to mean that beachgoers who don’t or can’t swim should stay outside the flags,” Dr Shibata said.

Ken Holloway holds a red and yellow surf board upright while smiling at the camera.
Ken Holloway, president of the Sandon Point Surf Life Saving Club.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

Mr Hopkins and Mr Holloway said the issue of standardising flags and signage around the world was discussed at the recent World Conference on Drowning Prevention, which they both attended in Perth.

“In many countries, especially in north America, it’s just a simple traffic light system; red danger, yellow caution, green go — and that’s pretty easy to understand,” he said.

“And then of course when they come to Australia and look at the red and yellow some people get a bit confused.”

Mr Hopkins suggested it might be time to consider green flags to replace the red and yellow.

“I have always been saying that they should be green,” Mr Hopkins said.

“A lot of people out there won’t like that but you’ve got to have some common sense and if we keep going the way we are going, drownings will keep going up and up, they are just going to get worse and worse.”


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