Sometimes big surf hits Toronto beaches — but city lifeguards aren't trained for it

Toronto lifeguards are not trained to rescue swimmers in powerful surf conditions, even though ocean-like waves and dangerous currents can sometimes occur in Lake Ontario.

After 2 drownings at monitored beaches this summer, lifeguard wants better training for rough water

A YouTube video appears to show the attempted rescue of a man at Kew Beach on July 21. (YouTube/Live Leak)

The director of a lifeguard training firm says Toronto lifeguards are not trained to rescue swimmers in powerful surf conditions, even though ocean-like waves and dangerous currents can sometimes occur in Lake Ontario.

Two people drowned at Toronto beaches this summer while on-duty lifeguards were in the area. Water conditions appear to have been a factor in both incidents.

"The waterfront here is pretty calm, but sometimes surf conditions can quickly arise due to strong wind," Brian Hanratty, a professional lifeguard and director of the training firm Toronto Lifeguarding, said in an interview.

"In those cases, the waterfront lifeguard is reaching the peak of their training. You definitely want to have surf lifeguards ready for those conditions," Hanratty said.

Lifeguards at Toronto's supervised beaches are required to have the National Lifeguard Pool certification. Once hired, they receive the more advanced National Lifeguard Waterfront certification.

The next and highest level of training, National Lifeguard Surf certification, which emphasizes rescue in strong waves and currents, is not a requirement for lifeguards employed by the City of Toronto.

Brian Hanratty is the director of Toronto Lifeguarding, a company that trains lifeguards in the GTA. (CBC/Gary Asseltine )

In a statement, a City of Toronto spokesperson told CBC Toronto that "lifeguards at city supervised beaches meet the recommended waterfront training and certification guidelines established by the Lifesaving Society."

"All lifeguards are required to attend weekly training sessions reviewing waterfront safety and first aid practices, including deployment and use of water craft, waterfront-specific emergency procedures such as signaling and radio use as well as skin diving, rescue and search skills," the statement said.

Drownings in lifeguard-supervised settings are extremely rare, accounting for less than one per cent of all drownings between 2011-2015, according to statistics gathered by the Lifesaving Society.

Summer drownings 

Kyle Howard-Muthulingam, 16,  drowned at Woodbine Beach on August 10 after attempting to help other swimmers in distress. He was just outside of the designated swimming area and lifeguards participated in the rescue effort.

Police said a strong current at the time may have contributed to the drowning.

Kyle Howard-Muthulingam drowned at Woodbine Beach on August 10. (GoFundMe.com)

On July 21, Dale Easson, 34, of Unionville, drowned while swimming at Kew Beach.

"The violent waves were unforgiving that afternoon," Easson's friend wrote in an online fundraising campaign following his death.

A YouTube video of what appears to be the incident shows several lifeguards attempting to rescue Easson as powerful waves slam into the shore.

In the video, a yellow flag is raised at the lifeguard station. The flag signifies "Caution Moderate Hazard," according to the Toronto Police Marine Unit.

According to an online fundraising campaign, Dale Easson, of Unionville, drowned while swimming at Kew Beach in Toronto on July 21. (Facebook)

After viewing the rescue video, Hanratty said the lifeguards "had some trouble because they kept getting pushed back by those surf waves."

"If they're just trained for waterfront conditions, as soon as these larger waves come in, they might be in over their head," he said.

Lifeguards 'very well-trained'

But Perry Smith, program director with the Lifesaving Society, disagrees.

"I didn't see anything unusual," he said of the rescue effort in the video.

Smith said the lifeguards are following their training and the video shows a careful and "systematic" search for a swimmer who appears to have gone under the surface.

"The conditions look very rough," he said of the video. "You have to be very cautious as a rescuer. You don't want to become a victim yourself."

Smith doesn't believe the National Lifeguard Surf certification is necessary in Toronto and says that it's not even required at all oceanfront beaches in Canada.

"The lifeguards at Toronto beaches are very well-trained," Smith said in an interview.

A YouTube video appears to show powerful waves crashing into the shore of Kew Beach during a rescue effort on July 21. (YouTube/Live Leak)

To be sure, Lake Ontario in Toronto is flat and calm for much of the summer. Swells like the one that occurred on July 21 are rare and caused by strong and sustained east wind.

Smith says the National Lifeguard Surf training is "almost identical" to the National Lifeguard Waterfront training Toronto lifeguards receive.

The main difference, Smith says, is that most of the five-day, 40-hour surf program is completed in waves more than a metre in height, which is impossible to achieve in Toronto.

"In both the Kew Beach and Woodbine Beach incidents, lifeguards responded quickly to swimmers in distress. Swimmers were pulled out of the water and staff administered first aid, including CPR," the statement from the City of Toronto spokesperson said.

The city employs about 120 part-time lifeguards to patrol beaches from June to September every year.

The estimated cost of this year's program is $1.7 million.

Last year, as part of its modernization plan, Toronto Police transferred oversight of the lifeguards to the city's Parks and Recreation department.

About the Author

Trevor Dunn

Trevor Dunn is an award-winning journalist with CBC Toronto. Since 2008 he's covered a variety of topics, ranging from local and national politics to technology on the South American countryside. Trevor is interested in uncovering news: real estate, crime, corruption, art, sports. Reach out to him. Se habla español. trevor.dunn@cbc.ca

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