By Colleen Boicey
For 40 years, children in the region have been sewing colourful Red Cross swimming badges on their swimsuits.
At City of Ottawa pools, this tradition will come to an end with the decision to replace the Red Cross program with a new one that emphasizes fitness rather than technique, says a city official.
Parks and recreation manager Dan Chenier said the current Red Cross program does not seem to appeal to kids and their parents. Enrolment levels are dropping as children get older and fewer learn about the fitness and safety benefits of swimming, he said.
The city awarded the new five-year-contract to the Lifesaving Society of Canada, an international organization with over 100 years experience.
A change to the program, which serves 50,000 clients in 25 facilities each year, was unavoidable because the Red Cross is also launching a new program, Red Cross Swim, to replace its AquaQuest program, currently in use at city pools.
Chenier says the Lifesaving Society Swim Program was selected by city staff because it places more emphasis on fitness and in-water activity, rather than strokes and techniques, and has a greater link to the Society’s advanced lifesaving courses, such as Bronze Star and Bronze Medallion.
This way, when children get to higher levels, they will have more lifesaving skills, swim more, and perhaps become lifeguards.“It at least offers something that’s more interesting to them,” Chenier said.
When the Lifesaving Society first launched this program in 2004, there was no competition for the Red Cross water safety program in Ottawa, Chenier said.
The city is among 42 former Red Cross affiliates to switch to the Lifesaving Society’s program. Tanya Elliott, director of public affairs at the Canadian Red Cross, says the organization is disappointed their program was not chosen, but says she is confident in its ability to please facilities, swimmers and parents while reducing drowning fatalities in Canada.
“We’ve been in this business for 60 years and our experience speaks for itself,” she said. “We are committed to this program and we will continue to prevent drownings through water safety and educational programs across Canada.”
Despite the losses, the Red Cross remains Canada’s number one provider for swimming lessons, serving one million Canadians a year, says Elliott.
Its new program is based on extensive market research and places an extra emphasis on life-long fitness and reducing childhood obesity through encouraging personal bests and teaching six strokes.
Lorraine Wilson-Saliba, program manager at the Lifesaving Society, says the Lifesaving Society program is successful because the extensive research it did while planning their program.
“The affiliates have been involved in every step of the process. Our success says we gave them what they wanted.”
She says the program focuses on the basics of swimming. It teaches three strokes, breaststroke, front crawl and back crawl, as opposed to the six taught by the Red Cross. The society feels children can move into the next levels, such as competitive swimming, after learning these basics.
In the upcoming months, the city will train staff and educate the public about the program, Chenier said. He does not expect the change, scheduled to be completed in April 2006, will turn users away.
“We recognize when there’s change like this, there are challenges. We’re confident this program is a solid program.”
At some independently managed pools in the city, the transition to the Lifesaving Society program has already begun. At the Dovercourt Recreation Centre in Westboro, clients have registered in the old AquaQuest program, but will end the session in the Lifesaving Society program, said Jan Gibbon, the centre’s aquatics director.
Gibbon says the program has been a success so far.
“People resist change, but once it’s put into place research shows there is a better way to do things,” she says. “We want the same thing as the parents – to reduce drownings.”