Tag Archives: safety

Fire and Water

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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.

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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.

 

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The RNLI on the River

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You may think that not much happens on the Thames around Teddington.

You might think that the RNLI don’t even have a presence on the Thames.

You would be wrong on both counts …

Since 2002, the RNLI has had four lifeboat stations on the River Thames:

Tower at Victoria Embankment (consistently one of the Charity’s busiest)

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Gravesend in Kent

and Teddington in Middlesex. Teddington is the only lifeboat station that is manned entirely by volunteer crew.

In 2014, when Into the Mourning Light was published, I was contacted by Teddington helm, Andy Butterfield.  His email included, “I saw your story in the Richmond and Twickenham Times on Friday. It was very sad to read your story and so I wanted to write just to let you know of some of the success the RNLI are having on the riverThe Teddington RNLI have started training riverside bar staff initially in Kingston, but now also Richmond in the use of throw lines and providing basic first aid”. 

In response, I contacted Andy to learn more about what was happening.  To put it into perspective, the time scale was nine years after James’ passing; and some six years since we completed our campaign with Kingston Council for safety improvements along the Kingston stretch of the river.

Andy was my introduction, initially to the work of the RNLI on the Thames.  Through Andy, and RNLI colleagues Guy Addington, John Soones and Ross Macleod, to name just a few, I was to become involved in the coastal/tidal Respect the Water campaign, and ultimately also the National Water Safety Forum, my most recent written input being in their Strategy document.

Throughout the time of my involvement with the RNLI, Andy and I never actually met and our paths did not cross at the various RNLI events I attended.  We have kept in contact though, and a couple of weeks ago we finally met at the Teddington Lifeboat station on a chilly Sunday morning.

Shaun and I were treated to a personal VIP tour of the lifeboat station with Andy and his colleague Jon Barker.

We saw the two D Class inshore lifeboats which have been generously donated by local residents, the first named in memory of Hilary Saw’s parents, and the new boat, which is to be officially launched in May, named for Hilary’s late husband Peter.

We learned much of what happens on a ‘shout’ and how quickly everyone responds and reacts.  The timings are crucial and therefore it is imperative that volunteers live very close to the station and are quickly able to respond should their pagers go off.  A lifeboat can be launched in five minutes. The waterproofs the volunteers wear are incredibly heavy and must be very hot in summer.

Jon talked of the training he does with local schools and scout groups. It is obvious by his enthusiasm that he and his fellow volunteers are able to provide youngsters with the knowledge they need to stay safe around water and also to inspire them by sharing the work of the RNLI.

 It seems to me that there has been a shift within the RNLI and today, their aim is, through their training work, to raise awareness across the board to help people understand how to stay safe around all areas of open water. 

Andy drives the training initiatives along the riverside bars and restaurants. There is tremendous personal poignancy in this image from one of last summer’s training exercises in Kingston, with James’ memorial plaque visible in the background.

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In February 2016 Andy coordinated an extensive mass casualty training exercise which mocked up a pleasure boat being run aground with numerous casualties on board, who had to be safely evacuated.

The RNLI joined forces with a local company, Turks Launches, to produce the scenario-based training.   The casualties were in full moulage (mock injuries for the purpose of training) and ranged from completely unresponsive casualties to the walking wounded.  Both Teddington lifeboats were launched.

In the press report of the event, I read that Andy was first on the scene.  He said, “I had three things running through my mind at all times.  Firstly, what is the risk to my crew and the casualties?  Secondly, how many casualties are there and what is their condition? And thirdly, how do I get them all to safety?”

The helmsman of the second Teddington lifeboat was tasked with ‘walking the floor’ of the vessel to ensure that everyone was accounted for.  An evacuation plan was formed with the crew on the vessel and all the casualties were eventually safely removed from the boat.

After what was a very successful collaborative exercise, Andy said, “Scenario-based training like this is crucial to the development of our skills as RNLI crew.  It is also in our interest to collaborate while training with fellow river users as it helps to prevent future incidents and their feedback is useful for improvements”.  The collaborative exercise was a great success.

However, despite the best efforts of the RNLI and other organisations, accidental drownings still happen, sadly in Kingston as well as elsewhere. But the good news is that along the Kingston stretch of the river, we know that lives have been saved by individuals working at the pubs and restaurants.  They have been trained following our loss in 2005, subsequent campaign for improved river safety and the access to training facilitated by the RNLI.  This fact alone is incredibly gratifying for us, as naturally, we view the loss of James in 2005 as a significant catalyst for change in the area.  Our campaign with Kingston Council proved to be just the start of positive forward moves in river safety.

Andy is responsible for the introduction of throw bag training, first aid and recovery sessions along the stretch of the Thames between Molesey Lock and Putney Bridge, particularly focusing on the busiest sections around Richmond and Kingston.

I am grateful to him and his co-trainers for their efforts.  Having met Andy and Jon I am even more impressed by their dedication to voluntary service, underpinned by their commitment to saving lives.  Andy and Jon reflect the ethos of every single person whom I have met who is involved with the RNLI:  a sincere desire to improve water safety universally and to prevent unnecessary loss of life. 

These men and women of the RNLI leave their egos outside the door and concentrate on the tasks they face in an utterly commendable way, often in challenging and perilous circumstances.

I wonder whether the RNLI should no longer be viewed just as ‘the charity that saves lives at sea’ but as the charity ‘that saves lives at sea and also prevents loss of life, at sea and on inland waterways and rivers’. 

I hope I have managed to inform that plenty happens on the river around Teddington and the RNLI are indeed a great presence on the Thames.

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