Between the flags
With summer comes the usual stupidity and carelessness around the water that is often fatal. The surf lifesavers are promoted as being at the forefront of water safety, but that isn't really their purpose and it is not really why they exist. They are sports clubs modelled on Australian lifeguards and their culture. Their presence on surf beaches - which are dangerous and make for poor bathing or swimming - encourages novice swimmers to risk their lives. Every life lost and injury incurred by people lured between the flags should be reported alongside the rescue stats - they are unnecessary casualties. All so they can dress up and play the hero - which seems very much the point and motivation of the lifeguards.
Evidence suggesting the life saving bit of life saving isn't really the overwhelming priority abound.
The patrol seasons that end on Waitangi Day, as some do, just when the temperature is highest seem more about convenience than safety. Patrols occur at the placid suburban beaches on Auckland's east coast that have never needed it. A lot of time, effort and resources go into the sporting games aspect. The life saver's station (itself typically built on a piece of stolen Maori land gifted by the local council for free) is a sports clubhouse used for socialising year round rather than a tent or a modest ambulance bay for the three to five months a year they actually operate. Herding people around, telling people where to go and what to do and not to do - exercising control and authority - and generally being the traffic wardens of the beach constitutes much of their activity. They have no powers, but that doesn't stop them acting as though they do, even if the most they can legally deliver is a self-righteous telling off. Anyone watching the Piha Surf Rescue TV show will know they treat each rescue as an elaborate set-piece rehearsal for their sports competition (with the routine of getting the inflatable, racing down to the beach, through the waves and out to sea etc.) rather than just have kept the boat out beyond the breakers so they can respond immediately when the call comes.
Striking a pose and being a hero is what it is all about - that is the attraction. Saving lives is the justification for everything, but when the whole enterprise is considered it is almost incidental to the social and cultural components of the club.
Having said that the clubs are pretty much there for one reason: not to keep people safe in the water, as they claim, but to encourage people to go into inherently unsafe water. As if a couple of flags on a wild, rip-prone surf beach and a wannabe David Hasslehoff up a tower makes it safe. Would putting a pair of flags up on the motorway in summer between 9am and 6pm and having someone in yellow and red speedos sitting on the top of a roof overlooking the motorway who has their bicycle readied by the back gate make it safe for kids to go out and play across the lanes? People shouldn't try playing on the motorway and nor should they try swimming at a surf beach, there are many alternatives.