PHUKET: A crisis of confidence is striking lifeguards on Phuket beaches just as the most deadly time of the year looms, a Phuketwan special investigation has found.
No deal has been done yet for the annual contract, even after last year's alarming record death toll of more than 35 drownings on Phuket beaches and at day-trip spots.
No applications have been made yet for the lifeguard tender, which expires on April 27.
And the seriousness of the problem for Phuket was driven home by one disenchanted lifeguard who said: ''Everybody wants to have lifeguards on the beach in front of their resort but they never support the lifeguards.''
Lifeguards with years of training are, like the anonymous man who spoke to us at a five-star beach, thinking of giving up unless there's some prospect of a better reward for their skills.
There's a real danger of Phuket having no lifeguards on its beaches again because of lack of proper funding and a failure by Phuket administrators to deal with the issue as an essential service for a swimming holiday destination.
''The whole things is alarming,'' one water safety expert said today. ''Every year we go through this distressing situation and every year there's the danger of lives being put at risk needlessly.''
Radical options are being contemplated, including the prospect of excluding two famous Phuket beaches from the contract because of running problems with locals. It's no fun being a lifeguard at Karon and Kata.
Across all of Phuket's beaches, the 20 million baht budget is considered to be unrewarding for both the lifeguards and the managers of the service, who have said privately that they only tender for the contract because there is no alternative.
If the Phuket Lifeguard Service does eventually put its hand up, Phuketwan understands that it will seek 22 million baht - and probably reduce the number of lifeguards by 20 percent.
''The lifeguards who have skills and who put up with this situation of not knowing whether they have a job every year deserve rewarding,'' said a source with knowledge of the dilemma. ''Otherwise, we will lose them.''
Although the transfer from one contract to another was relatively smooth last year, only a couple of years ago, there were no lifeguards on Phuket's beaches for seven weeks as the dangerous monsoon swept in.
The Phuket Provincial Administrative Organisation funds the service, and claims the annual contracts tender makes the process transparent and free from corruption.
However, with so many drownings on the holiday island's beaches all year long, the provision of lifeguards is clearly an essential role that affects Phuket's ability to safeguard its tourist visitors.
''At the least, there should be overlapping contracts,'' the water safety expert said. ''It would be difficult to promote Phuket as a year-round beach destination without lifeguards to protect swimmers.''
Although the lifeguards have said time and time again that they need the help of all of Phuket's resort managements to adequately warn tourists of the dangers of Phuket's beaches, few resorts have responded.
And as the disenchanted lifeguard told us, Phuket is likely to face another record drowning toll this year because of the arrival of greater numbers of tourists from China and Russia and other countries without much knowledge of beaches.
The lifeguard, who has been part of the system for nine years, said: ''The system needs to improve to take account of the change in tourists. The Russians and Chinese are not given any advice about swimming, either by the resorts or their agents.
''Australians mostly grow up as beach swimmers so they know and understand what can happen. But the Russians and Chinese are just being left to their fate.''
He said that with the annual contracts, there wasn't even a chance to sit down with other people and talk about the lessons learned in the past year.
''We must have a proper system,'' he said. ''Our hearts are broken when tourists drown.''
The lack of an effective system to protect swimmers is likely to bring more intense scrutiny from the ambassadors of several countries in Bangkok. Last year's record death toll is a sign that the warning system isn't working.
Travel alerts are not what international swimming destinations want, but Phuket will risk a reaction from the ambassadors unless safety standards are improved.
''We need to improve badly and there has to be a reaction to this,'' the lifeguard said. ''You can drown on a beach on Phuket any time of the year.''
Yet the lifeguards are deprived of the most vital equipment - a jet-ski fitted with a sled for rapid response and the best chance of saving lives.
''It's remarkable that the resorts sometimes call upon lifeguards to rush to their resorts when lives are at risk and they need someone to supply oxygen or cpr in a hurry,'' he said. ''Yet the resorts are disinterested in helping us.
''We still have such a long way to go. We need proper support from the Governor and from the resorts. International standards are required.''
A reduction of staff on Phuket's beaches would cut the number from 108 to 88 to ensure the properly trained lifeguards were rewarded. But the logical reaction to such a deadly year on Phuket's beaches would be to improve numbers and training, not slash them.
That's the dilemma faced this year again by the people who need the whole island's support to maintain Phuket's fading reputation as a safe beach swimming destination.
Phuketwan believes only the creation of a properly-funded Phuket Beach Authority can sustain a fulltime lifeguard system and protect the beaches from degradation and private commercial interests. Local authorities continue to prove they can't manage it.