Caroline leads a 'safety revolution' as she reaches out to 14,000 kids in Cork

The work of Cork County Council’s Safety Officer Caroline Casey was recognised recently with a national honour. COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to her about her role, promoting water, road and farm safety among primary school children
Caroline leads a 'safety revolution' as she reaches out to 14,000 kids in Cork
Caroline Casey receiving her ‘Leading Light in Road Safety’ award from RSA Chairperson Liz O’Donnell.

THIRTY children in Ireland drown every ten years — needlessly. Lack of education and adult supervision are the main reasons, says Caroline Casey.

Caroline, who was recently awarded the Road Safety Authority ‘Leading Light in Road Safety’ award for 2017, is the Cork County Council safety officer.

It’s a full-time post for this mother-of-one who is the only full-time safety officer working for a local authority in the country.

Caroline, who is passionate about her job, is active at all levels, from pre-school to post primary and with the public in general.

She completed a H.Dip in coaching & coaching psychology at UCC last year. Her research project was based on safety education for children, using a coaching approach. This approach is an empowering experience for children, giving them the opportunity to participate in safe practices, based on knowledge that is revealed to them as they arrive at it themselves.

Active in water safety, road safety and farm safety, Caroline created her job. Having worked for the local authority for years, she approached management in 2015 and came up with a plan.

“The number of drownings in Cork were quite high. There was a need to do something more about this,” says Caroline.

“Knowing that lack of education and adult supervision are the main causes, my thought was that I can’t do much about supervision unless I’m working on a pool deck or on the beaches in the summer. But I realised we could make an impact on education and on promoting it.

“Generally speaking, most primary schools would do a term of swimming in their local swimming pool. I suppose each school makes its own decision, as to whether they can afford it. It’s part of the curriculum and is encouraged.”

When it comes to children in the water, supervision is key, says Caroline.

“Would you leave a child unsupervised at the side of a motorway? It’s the same thing with water but people can be blasé about the water. We take it for granted. We think that maybe children know more than they actually do.”

Caroline says that boys tend to take more chances in the water.

“Boys might call it being brave, while girls might call it being stupid. But there is peer pressure (to take risks).”

When she visits a school, her aim is to develop the children’s risk assessment skills.

“Be it on the road, around water or on a farm, it’s about using your common sense. What is your gut telling you? It’s about being responsible for your behaviour.”

While everyone has common sense and skills, people sometimes forget them. Caroline’s approach is not preaching from the top of a classroom. She gets the children to think for themselves, pointing out the folly of certain actions and allowing the children to come to sensible conclusions.

“She cites the example of throwing a ring buoy to someone in difficulty in the water.

“Some might say that you should throw it over the person’s head. But I point out that you could knock someone out doing that. We talk through the situation. I get the children to come up with the correct answer. When throwing a ring buoy, you should drop the end of the rope on the ground and put your leg on top of it so that when you throw the ring buoy, the rope doesn’t go into the water.”

With approximately 500 schools in County Cork, it’s not possible for Caroline to go round to all of them and speak to every individual child: “I decided to bring all the services to one place, Tír Na Sí open farm in Watergrasshill. The Road Safety Authority speaks to the children there and Irish Water Safety speaks to them. We teach the children how to do CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) with a resuscitation doll.

“We have speakers such as Padraig Higgins from Co Laois whose six-year-old son, James, drowned in a farm accident some years ago. I always point out, particularly in rural schools, that a farm is not a playground.

Cllr Declan Hurley, Mayor of the County of Cork with pupils of St Lachteen's NS Donoughmore, at the Cork County Council Road Safety Story Book competition prize-giving ceremony, at Cork County Hall. Also included is Caroline Casey, CCC safety development officer. Picture: David Keane.
Cllr Declan Hurley, Mayor of the County of Cork with pupils of St Lachteen's NS Donoughmore, at the Cork County Council Road Safety Story Book competition prize-giving ceremony, at Cork County Hall. Also included is Caroline Casey, CCC safety development officer. Picture: David Keane.

“Once the children have the information and take part in workshops, they go outdoors and look at a farm. They can see what a slurry tank looks like and they know why it’s dangerous to go too near the animals or on top of bales of hay. What they learn, they put into practice.”

Caroline initiated the idea of a Safety Flag Award for the schools of County Cork. The flags are awarded to each school on foot of completing a personal safety programme.

“To date, 123 schools are flying the safety flag. When the flag is awarded to a school, the children receive an education pack to go with it. The pack contains a school gate safety brochure, a road safety loop card game, a road safety snap card game, road, water and farm safety board games and story books about the adventures of characters called Sally and Jake based on road, water and farm safety.

Novelty items such as water bottles, baseball hats and gear bags are awarded to the junior road safety officer who is elected at school during a visit by Caroline.

The junior road safety officer is in charge of running events, such as quizzes and other activities throughout the school year.

The young officers are given a handbook which they use as a reference point. Through their teachers, the officers liaise with Caroline, who supports them with competitions and projects, ensuring that this important education continues after her initial visit.

Caroline also encourages older children in schools to peer-coach the younger children.

She says the children she deals with are very receptive because it’s all about experiential learning.

“They’re proud of their flag. They can have it flying inside or outside the school. It’s a way of marking that a school is safety conscious. The flag is also a talking point. It starts a conversation about safety.”

Mobile phones are also discussed.

“We talk about using them in a car being a no-no. We talk about walking on the side of a road with earphones on which is not a good idea.

“We talk about how texting and talking (while walking) is not good for concentration and that people should put their phones away. They’re aware of all that. It doesn’t mean they’re all putting their phones away but if you can get a few of them to think about it, that’s good.”

There are 57 traffic wardens in County Cork, helping children to cross the road on their way to school.

“I have designed a little certificate to be given to junior infants when they start school in September. The school warden does a little crossing exercise in the school yard, showing them how to cross the road.

“We also play ‘The Safe Cross Code’ (the instructive TV ad on road safety going back decades which was screened on RTÉ Television.)”

All the time, when it comes to safety instruction, the emphasis is on the practical, such as safety in the driveway at home, on the farm with machinery and cycling and walking. Safe behaviour in vehicles is covered including the wearing of safety belts, wearing hi-viz clothing and cycling helmets.

“The motto is ‘Be Visible, Look and Listen’. Caroline is proud to say that by the end of 2017, the safety motto reached approximately 14,000 County Cork school children between the ages of five and 12.

“We encourage every school in the county to get involved in our ‘safety revolution’. Cork is the largest county in the country with a vast amount of road and motorway, 19% of the coastline, numerous lakes and rivers.”

It’s fitting then that Cork County Council is the first local authority to implement a safety education flag for the pupils in County Cork.

It’s also important that parents/guardians are roles models. Model safe behaviour is the message.

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