“More people die from drowning at sea in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland than from cycling accidents”, – one of the worrying facts I learned during a recent visit to RNLI headquarters. Another is that the World Health Organisation considers deaths by drowning to have reached “epidemic proportions”.
The RNLI aims to reduce these figures nationally and internationally by 50% before the year 2024. To see how this target can be achieved, and a host of other things, I arranged a visit to the Institution’s HQ at Poole.
On arrival in Poole, I was pleased to see that what had previously been a rather desolate area had changed dramatically and now a new supermarket occupied the area on the railway station side of the RNLI headquarters complex. I learned that in the future it will be possible to walk from the station along a footpath direct to the front door of the reception area with the need to cross only one road. Typically, this is in line with the RNLI’s aims to promote safety everywhere. With completion of a new All-weather Lifeboat (ALB) construction and repair facility, there are now four very impressive buildings in a modern “house style” in colour and in keeping with the RNLI.
At the public entrance to the RNLI College building, double doors open onto a spacious reception area where there are seats, papers and magazines. Beckoning is a souvenir shop staffed, of course, by volunteers. Here you can view and purchase a wide range of RNLI branded clothing, souvenirs and gifts both small and large which, in my case, included a very comfortable to use retractable ballpoint pen with which to make notes.
Whilst I was waiting in this area, I was interested to observe the hustle and bustle of eager, happy looking staff and visitors passing to and fro intent on their purposes. The whole place exuded the ethos of an efficient, effective, no nonsense organisation.
I was met by a member of the RNLI’s Press and Public Relations Office and accompanied across West Quay Road to the Sir William Hillary office building – the headquarters and powerhouse of the Institution. The accommodation there is now open-plan in style, divided into various sections. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) occupies a corner of the top floor, the majority of which is occupied by the RNLI Operations Team. The old “Ops Room” I remembered from my last visit some six years previously has gone, but the information it contained has not. If anything, the information held has substantially increased. Now from continuously updated wall-mounted boards, the operational state of all RNLI stations and their lifeboats can be seen at a glance.
In five years time the current phase of ALB fleet modernisation will be complete with all boats capable of achieving 25 knots with an operational capacity of up to 100 miles from their base station. The hand-over of the rebuilt St David’s lifeboat station completes the current phase of incorporating the Tamar Class into the fleet.
Beside the ongoing task of keeping the lifeboat fleet maintained and up to date with safer, faster and with better sea-going qualities, crews have to be found, recruited and trained. These days, 90% of lifeboat crew personnel no longer have a maritime background. At a lifeboat station, the first task is to gain assurance that potential volunteers have the necessary commitment in terms of their willingness to allocate their time and to undertake an intensive training regime. With this commitment, the new crew will start to assimilate knowledge and practical expertise, first of shore-based tasks then progressing to going afloat on exercises and eventually becoming competent lifeboat crew members. Assessment can then be made of their individual suitability for a specialist task be it engineering, navigation, radio or first aid etc. From my own experience of visiting lifeboat stations, there is a great deal of friendly competition amongst the volunteers to obtain the most qualifications.
The old ethos of always being able to undertake work that is above that of your present position still, fortunately, exists. Once those at the home station, the Coxswain, Local Operations Manager and Divisional Operations Manager are satisfied that the volunteer has the necessary commitment and experience they will recommend attendance at the RNLI College in Poole.
The supporter’s side was not covered directly during my visit, but as a fund-raiser myself, I was able to pick up some useful information. Throughout the country, most RNLI branches have found difficulty in obtaining help from young people. One of the ways in which the RNLI has worked to remedy this situation has been to find and form teams of young people, possibly in a “gap year” or waiting to secure employment, and teach them to understand the RNLI, what it stands for, what it does and how it works. They are then sent out amongst the general public on busy beach days where they talk about the Institution and its’ aims and achievements and then try to encourage them to subscribe to the RNLI. In this they may or may not always be successful, but in the process they will pass on their knowledge to others of their age which, in turn, may generate interest in supporting the RNLI more actively. After all, the young are the future and we need their involvement for the continuation of the service.
On the fourth floor of the RNLI Headquarters building, is situated the Coastal Safety Intelligence Manager who studies and analyses all water related incidents around the UK and Republic of Ireland (ROI) and, in particular, those involving the services of the RNLI lifeboats and lifeguards. The RNLI’s aim is to reduce loss of life by drowning (excluding suicides) in the UK and ROI by 50% by the year 2024.
It has become clear that to achieve this will require a change in the attitude and behaviour of all persons engaging in activities involving water. For this reason, the issues and circumstances surrounding every single incident must be studied and understood before it is possible to provide answers and start the changes in culture.
One way forwards is through education and involvement of the public and water users in appropriate places eg, on beaches where there are established RNLI Beach Lifeguard Units deployed. The first message to get across is not necessarily “Don’t do it!”, but “Do it this way – it’s safer and you will be at less risk”. It is not claimed that this approach will prevent all accidents from occurring, but that it will make accidents less likely and easier to deal with when they do happen.
Local level landowners and local authorities are now encouraged to erect high visibility danger warning signs at known accident spots such as signs for cliff walkers in order to prevent them, or their animals, from falling over cliffs, or to prevent persons from becoming stranded by rising tides on some beaches.