Dying to help: water safety experts urge would-be rescuers to think before they leap

The successful execution of a water rescue last week highlights the importance of ‘safety first’ before attempting a rescue and only entering with water with some form of flotation, says WaterSafe Auckland.

Since 1980, 93 people have drowned while trying to save another person. Typically it is the person in trouble that survives, and the would-be rescuer that drowns, says Chief Executive Jonathon Webber.

“We are lucky to live in a country where a people, are prepared to step up to the mark and make these heroic attempts at rescue,” says Mr Webber, “we just want them to be able to return home to their families safe and well.”

“Most of these people would still be alive today if they followed this one piece of advice; only enter the water if you have some form of flotation. You don’t see lifeguards attempting a rescue without equipment.”

In many cases a rescue can be performed without entering water – throwing something to the person, or by only going out to waist-depth and reaching out with a branch or beach umbrella.

Mr Webber says that if purpose designed rescue equipment such as a life-ring is not available, people should use improvised flotation aids such as a body-board, surfboard, rugby ball, chilly-bin lid, or even an empty 2-3L juice or milk container.

“Providing flotation to a person interrupts the drowning process buying valuable time to either plan how to get the person back to shore, or wait until rescue services arrive” he says.

WaterSafe Auckland has developed a model of bystander rescue called the ‘4Rs of Aquatic Rescue’ – Recognise, Respond, Rescue and Revive – which they would like to see this incorporated into first aid and other forms of public safety education.

“We have good public education around what to do in an earthquake, but when it comes to dealing with someone drowning, for an aquatic nation we are sadly lacking,” says Mr Webber.

Official figures put the estimated cost of a fatal drowning is $3,948,000 and $394,800 for non-fatal drowning hospitalisation.[i] These do not of course reflect the social cost to families and communities who are devastated when a drowning occurs, even more so when it is entirely preventable.

Recent tragedies involving bystander rescues underline how important it is that everyone plays their part in achieving fewer drownings and thinking the 4Rs is a good starting point.

The 4Rs of Aquatic Rescue are:

  • RECOGNISE: Notice someone in trouble – Check for danger – Ask “Are you okay?” The person may be unable to call out or wave for help. Act quickly.
  • RESPOND: Provide flotation without delay – Improvised flotation aids are okay – Ask another person to call 111 so you don’t lose sight of the person in trouble.
  • RESCUE: Your safety comes first – Rescue from land or craft is the safest – Throw a rope, or wade out to waist depth an extend a branch/pole – Only go further than waist depth with some form of flotation for yourself – Use the flotation aid as a barrier between yourself and the person in trouble so they don’t grab hold of you – If you can safely return to shore do so, otherwise wait for help to arrive.
  • REVIVE: The person may require first aid/CPR when you get back to shore – If the person is not breathing normally, start CPR – If they are breathing, place in the recovery position – Make sure an ambulance has been called – Stay with the person until help arrives.

For further information and interviews:

Jonathon Webber

Chief Executive
WaterSafe Auckland
P: 021 555 382
E: jonathon.webber@watersafe.org.nz

[i] Estimated cost of drowning, released by Water Safety New Zealand, Statistics New Zealand, the Ministry of Transport and the New Zealand Search and Rescue Council.

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