A grief-stricken father who lost his son in a swimming pool incident has called for a ban on pool parties for young children. Picture for illustrative purposes only Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Watchmen and security guards are doing lifeguard duties at swimming pools in hundreds of residential buildings across Dubai and Sharjah. Forget CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and first aid certification - many don't even know how to swim.

Following a spate of deaths among children by drowning in pools, XPRESS visited several residential buildings in the two emirates to see if basic safety features were in place at their pools.

The picture that emerged is dismaying and shocking. Municipality rules about swimming pool safety equipment and lifeguards are being violated with impunity.

Unguarded

Most pools are not manned. And among the ones that are, many are supervised by either the building watchman or the security guard with no swimming or life-saving skills.

We asked them if they knew how to swim. Here's what they told us:

A security guard at a building in Al Barsha: "I can keep myself afloat, but if you are asking if I can swim the answer is ‘no'. Thankfully, there hasn't been any incident where my limited skills could be tested."

A guard at a multi-storey building in Dubai Marina: "How does it matter whether I can swim or not? We have a separate pool for children and it's not very deep."

A watchman at a building in Al Nahda, Sharjah: "No, I don't know how to swim, but I have been asked to monitor the pool area and I do that with utmost sincerity."

Several real estate companies told XPRESS they make do with security guards and watchmen as they come cheap and are readily available.

"Employing a lifeguard is an expensive proposition, plus they are always in short supply," said the manager of a Dubai real estate company.

A lifeguard draws a minimum salary of Dh2,500 per month, almost twice that of a watchman or a security guard.

The makeshift arrangement of watchmen doubling up as lifeguards isn't half as good, yet some buildings don't even have that.

We found several buildings, particularly some new ones near Al Taawun Mall in Sharjah where there was no one watching over the pools.

"I have been asked to do pool and reception duties. Obviously, I can't be at both places at the same time. When I am at the pool, there's no one at the reception, and vice versa," said the Indian security guard at a building near Al Qasba.

Recently, one such death trap in the city's Al Khan area nearly killed three-year-old Yasir. The child was playing near the pool when he slipped and fell into the water. His mother screamed for help but there was no attendant who could come to their rescue.

Fortunately, an alert neighbour, who was also a doctor, happened to be around. Dr Omar Abdul Wahid pulled out the unconscious child and performed CPR on him. Somebody called for an ambulance and the toddler was rushed to the hospital. Miraculously, he survived.

But not all kids have been that lucky. Last month, special needs child Nandana, 8, drowned at an Emirates Hill swimming pool while her mother, Indian singer K.S. Chitra, was in the toilet. Days later, on May 6, another girl fell into a pool, this time in Abu Dhabi. Shahd, 3, was in a coma, battling for life when reports last came in.

Accidental drowning is the second-biggest killer of children in the UAE, topped only by road accidents. In recent years it has snuffed out scores of young lives, at times even in supposedly safe places like hotels and health clubs.

Ameer Sameer, 5, died after drowning at a beach hotel in Ajman because the lifeguard was monitoring another pool.

J.A., 8, met the same fate at a hotel in Rigga. The lifeguard was on leave and the janitor deployed in his place didn't know what to do.

In Umm Al Quwain, a Sudanese couple lost their twin daughters aged eight. Again, there was no one minding the hotel pool. The same terrible oversight killed Sania, 7, at a health club in Ghusais. The list goes on.

Lurking danger

"Up to five children face serious dangers in UAE waters every day, probably even more during summer," said leading Dubai-based water safety expert Kirk Marks. Calling for aggressive safety measures, he said authorities should introduce strict laws in order to prevent drowning and pool injuries.

"These days most developed countries have legislations on pool safety. It's about time the UAE had one as well. If the laws are able to save even one child it will be worth the effort," added Marks, who operates the Australian International Swim Schools (AISS) in the UAE and Qatar and is also consultant to private and government organisations in the GCC on water safety initiatives and swimming for health and fitness.

Nobody knows how many swimming pools there are in the UAE. A conservative estimate by Manal Shah, General Manager, Belhasa Projects Engineering, pegs the number close to 20,000. "We alone have undertaken around 4,000 pool projects in the country, so you can imagine how big the market is," he said.

An official at Dubai Municipality's Public Health and Safety Department responsible for the maintenance and safety of public pools said the municipality's local order No 11/2003 clearly states that pools should have adequate stock of safety equipment and a qualified lifeguard on duty when people are swimming.

Many pools we visited had neither.

As the summer heat intensifies, the risk of children drowning in pools has gone up several notches. The danger is clear and present.

Marks said every adult should learn basic CPR. "It's two quick breaths followed by 30 heart compressions. You never know when you'll need it."

In the current scenario, it might be sooner than you think. 

Tips for parents

The following tips by water safety expert Kirk Marks allow you to keep your children safe around swimming pools.

  • Supervise children at all times when in or around water
  • Never leave you child unattended near a pool
  • Ensure that the pool is safe and fenced with a working pool gate
  • Maids should not be supervising children if they are unable to swim
  • Ensure that your maid has the ability to rescue people. There are rescue techniques that can be used without entering the water
  • Make sure you have rescue equipment. If you have a home pool - rescue tubes and long poles are ideal
  • Learn how to resuscitate people and make sure your maids learn also
  • Supervise. There's no substitute for parental supervision - never leave your child near a pool in the care of someone who is not able to swim or can't assist someone in trouble
  • Make sure your phone has the emergency number as a priority. It is 999

Did you know?

If your building swimming pool is unguarded, bring it to the notice of your management. A prudent management will listen to your concerns and implement safety measures. If it doesn't, report the matter to Dubai Municipality at 800 900.