Victoria’s aquatic industry came together this month to commemorate 20 years of the Play it Safe by the Water (PISBTW) state government-funded water safety awareness campaign. 

The campaign began in 1988 with five aquatic agencies, brought together to effect change following a spate of drownings in Victoria that culminated in the tragic mass drowning of siblings Ben (7) and Molly (4) Wilson and their teenage cousins Belinda and Catherine in a rip at Gunnamatta. 

“My daughter Emma (then 12), said ‘Dad, one moment we were standing there and the next moment we were under the water’,” says Derek Wilson of the speed of the tragedy that claimed the lives of his children and nieces. “You can’t put an expiry date on grief.” 

Mr Wilson was in the audience at Williamstown Swimming & Life Saving Club as Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp officially opened the 20th annual Water Safety Week, initiated to educate and drive water safety awareness for drowning prevention. 

“Over the 20 years of the campaign, the drowning toll has reduced by 46%, which is a fantastic achievement,” says Dr Bernadette Matthews, LSV’s Principal Research Associate. “But, with the highest summer drowning toll since 1988 last season, there’s still work to be done.” 

A commemorative video was made to mark the occasion and to look back over the government-community partnership, which has included successes such as the introduction of the Open Water Learning Experience (OWLE) and Sink or Swim programs, home pool fence legislation, mandatory lifejacket laws, standardised coastal water safety signage, television advertising campaigns – such as the “20 Seconds in All it Takes” commercial, indigenous surfing programs and changes to the curriculum to make swimming lessons mandatory in all Victorian primary schools. 

Kidsafe Victoria General Manager Jason Chambers also spoke at the commemorative event, saying: “We’re proud to be part of the PISBTW committee and thankful for the support of other agencies, as well as the subject-matter expertise available. As a united aquatics industry, we can make a difference, and this has been proven. There are different perspectives, collaboration, consultation, empowerment and participation as pillars for the group.” 

The event showcased the good work the group has been able to do together, yet also highlighted the need for continued vigilance and water safety initiatives as demographics change, population increases, and new Victorians require water safety education. 

“We need to continue to address high risk audiences. We’ve been able to identify who they are and now we have to know how we are going to approach these audiences,” says LSV’s CEO Dr Nigel Taylor, “and that’s the work for the future of the Play it Safe by the Water campaign, because every drowning death is one too many.” 

The PISBTW committee is preparing to welcome its 20th aquatic agency member to the group this month, consolidating the impact that can be had through sharing of knowledge and resources. 

Current PISBTW Committee Members:

Aquatics & Recreation Victoria
Belgravia Leisure
Boating Industry Association of Victoria
Department of Justice
Dragon Boat Victoria
Kidsafe Victoria
Kiteboarding Australia
Life Saving Victoria
Maritime Safety Victoria
Paddle Victoria
Parks Victoria
Surfing Victoria
Swimming Victoria
Triathlon Victoria
Victorian Fisheries Authority
VR Fish
Yachting Victoria
YMCA Victoria 

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