When you are a young parent you are very aware of school years and ages. It’s surprising how fast this fades and at the meeting I attended at the East Sussex Fire and Rescue HQ this week, I had to ask the age of children in years five and six, because I had forgotten. (It’s age 9-11, by the way).
In loss terms, this being the twelfth year since we lost James, I am a Year Twelve. That equates to the age of 16/17; to all intents and purposes an age of discovery, development and burgeoning maturity.
Sitting in that meeting room in Eastbourne, I found myself wondering what, if I was truly a Year Twelve, I would see today that is different from what James saw when he himself was in Year Twelve, with regards to safety generally, and water safety specifically.
The word cloud above, generated entirely from words I heard at Wednesday’s meeting, gives part of the answer.
I was invited to Sussex by Dawn Whittaker, Deputy Chief Fire Officer at East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, following our meeting last February at the launch of the National Water Safety Forum’s Strategy. This in turn led to my involvement in the making of one of the ‘Beyond Blue Lights’ films for the Chief Fire Officers Association later in the year.
Wednesday’s meeting drew together representatives of community safety, serving firefighters/lifeguards, those involved in delivering the safety messages of fire, road and water and a representative from the RLSS (Royal Life Saving Society).
The meeting was relatively informal; its purpose was to share the details of the ESFRS Water Safety Strategic Aims and Action plan which is already under way and has been instituted by a focused team of individuals. Dawn told me that all that was required from me was to feedback my views about what is planned and to highlight any areas in which I think I can contribute from my personal experience.
The ESFRS have the same aims and intention as the National Water Safety Forum: to halve the number of drownings which occur in waters in and around the UK, by 2026.
When you consider that around 400 people lose their life to drowning each year, and it is the third most common cause of death amongst young people aged 10-18, this represents a significant target.
Drowning accounts for more accidental fatalities every year than fire deaths in the home or cyclist deaths on the road.
From this it can be seen how relevant is the involvement of the Fire and Rescue service alongside those organisations more easily identifiable as being involved with water safety, such as the RNLI, the RLSS and HM Coastguard..
The key strategies and intentions of the ESFRS Action Plan are
- Delivery of water safety message through a more cohesive and collaborative approach including via nominated Water Safety Champions
- Working supportively with other agencies : RNLI, HM Coastguard, RLSS, RosPA, local authorities, ASA and other Life Savers such as leisure centre lifeguards
- Involvement with the four major national annual water safety campaigns with CFOA, RLSS Don’t Drink and Drown and RNLI Respect the Water
- Undertaking to educate all children and young people about the dangers of entering open water
- Collaboration with local authorities and Pub Watch schemes to achieve a reduction in alcohol related drowning
I was immensely struck on Wednesday by the commitment and energy of each individual to the cause of making this huge difference. Each are working closely together to bring the safety messages to the community in many forms. For example, we heard that members of the team have spent several weekends patrolling nightclubs in Brighton late at night, directly taking the message about the foolhardiness of a late night dip to the students in the town.
The introduction of Water Safety Champions, those individuals who have a particular passion for a specific area brings different resources to the table, too. The Education team goes into schools on a regular basis to spread the safety word.
The most striking thing about the meeting was that, like my experiences with the RNLI, there is an obvious willingness to share together and pull with cohesion in the same direction. Everyone is inclusive; no one is trying to be possessive or exclusive or to take ownership of specific areas.
This is undoubtedly where the strength of a cohesive, collaborative team approach is going to win the day.
Dawn asked me to share what is important to me. My view, strengthened over the past 11 ½ years, is that drowning prevention must begin with education, and a heightened awareness by every young person that they must look out for their own and their peers’ safety, with diligence.
Safety education is going to start more vigorously in primary schools, rather than just secondary schools, which is a very good initiative.
Every child will ultimately have the opportunity to learn to swim. It is important (if obvious) to note that being able to swim does not preclude drowning, as we know to our cost.
In fact, as Dawn pointed out, it is more likely that you would choose to avoid water if you cannot swim, something that had not occurred to me before.
I also feel very strongly, a growing sense that up until recently, organisations have been lax in recognising the needs of their own staff, who are working ‘at the sharp end’ and dealing with very traumatic circumstances, To this end, I always advocate that people seek their own avenues of grief support and trauma support after incidents. We had some discussion about bereavement support organisations such as The Compassionate Friends, CRUSE, the Drowning Support Network and SOBS to name but a few, and the need to have these easily accessible to operational staff as well as families at the appropriate time through the available links.
As a Year Twelve, I see that my role in water safety has gradually become twofold. Firstly, I understand the importance of telling James’ story – not to sensationalise, but to personalise, the reality of living the life of a bereaved parent, also how that impacts on the family and beyond. My work with Kingston Council, my writing and my subsequent involvement with the RNLI and other organisations are all key to sharing very important messages around the matters of water safety.
Secondly, I feel it is vital to share and talk about the issues surrounding trauma, grief and loss, for our own health and wellbeing. It is well recognised that acquiring a grief toolbox is key to getting through the worst of times and remaining relatively sane! I welcome the chance to share these aspects of grieving whenever possible, through writing, presentations and workshops.
Having said that, articulating my thoughts at such a meeting of professionals is an opportunity I never imagined I would have and I am grateful to Dawn for her invitation.
Such events are emotionally draining and I was very glad to have Shaun with me, who gamely drove us there and back and sat in on the meeting; his presence was appreciated, as always.
Finally, I share a comment by David Kemp, Head of Community Safety, who said,
“We do no harm, we only do good”. That strikes me as a good ethos for ESFRS to have, and I wish them every success in achieving the aims of this most important strategy.