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Coastal deaths: RNLI says ‘fight your instincts, not the water' to help stay alive

28th May 2017

Photograph of Coastal deaths: RNLI says ‘fight your instincts, not the water' to help stay alive

New research1 commissioned by the RNLI has revealed that six in ten people (61%) in Scotland would follow a potentially life-threatening instinct if they fell unexpectedly into water. The RNLI is now calling on the public to fight their instincts and remember one simple skill - floating - that could save lives from drowning.

Meanwhile, coastal fatality figures2 released today by the RNLI show 30 people lost their lives around the coast of Scotland in 2016, with over half (57%) of those being people who didn't even intend to enter the water.

Sudden immersion in cold water puts these people at severe risk of suffering cold water shock, which triggers the instinctive but life-threatening reaction to gasp uncontrollably and swim hard, which can quickly lead to drowning. Research commissioned by the RNLI shows six in ten people in Scotland would follow this potentially life-threatening instinct if they fell into water3, with 44% of respondents saying their immediate reaction would be to swim, while 3% said they would panic – two of the instinctive responses the RNLI is urging people to fight. Others said they would remove clothing (5%); do nothing (2%); hold their breath (1%) and 6% said they would not know what to do.

As the RNLI's national drowning prevention campaign Respect the Water enters its fourth year, the charity is calling on the public to fight their instincts and remember one core survival skill – floating, until the effects of cold water shock pass and you can catch your breath, before then trying to swim to safety or call for help.

Overall, just 13% of respondents in Scotland alluded to a recommended first course of action, with just 4% saying tread water and none knowing specifically to float. Others said they would stay calm (6%) or look for something to hold on to (3%).

Mike Tipton, Professor of Human and Applied Physiology at the University of Portsmouth, explains:‘We often rely on our instincts but our instinctive response to sudden immersion in cold water – gasping, thrashing and swimming hard – is potentially a killer. It increases chances of water entering your lungs, increases the strain on your heart, cools the skin further and helps air escape from any clothing, which then reduces buoyancy.

‘Although it’s counter-intuitive, the best immediate course of action in that situation is to fight your instinct and try to float or rest, just for a short time. The effects of cold water shock will pass quite quickly, within 60–90 seconds. Floating for this short time will let you regain control of your breathing and your survival chances will greatly increase.

‘Floating is not an easy skill in cold open water but most people can float, and the air trapped in their clothes as they fall in should make it easier. As little exercise as necessary can be undertaken to help stay afloat. The recommended floating position is to lean back in the water and keep your airway clear. Keeping calm will help maintain buoyancy. Some people find it helpful to gently scull with their hands and kick their feet to keep afloat. The main principle is to do as little as possible until you have control of your breathing. At this point you have a much better chance of avoiding drowning and surviving until you can swim to safety, call for help, or continuing to float until help arrives.’

Mike Garfitt, RNLI Area Lifesaving Manager in Scotland, says:‘The RNLI’s volunteer lifeboat crews and lifeguards saved hundreds of people from near-fatal incidents in 2016 and rescued thousands more but, sadly, they aren’t able to reach everyone. If people in danger in the water can help themselves initially by floating and regaining control of their breathing, they stand a much greater chance of surviving. Through our Respect the Water campaign, we want to start a national conversation about water safety. We’re asking the public to remember this lifesaving advice, share with others and practice the survival skill of floating – it could be the difference between life and death.

‘For those who are planning to go into the water, the best way to stay safe is to choose a lifeguarded beach and swim between the red and yellow flags, which is the area most closely monitored by the lifeguards. And if you see someone else in danger in the water, fight your instinct to go in and try to rescue them yourself – instead call 999 and ask for the Coastguard.’

The campaign is targeted at adult men, who account for over three-quarters (78%) of the coastal deaths in Scotland over the past five years, and 73% of last year’s Scottish coastal fatalities4, although the advice is relevant to anyone who goes near the water.

The Respect the Water campaign will run throughout the summer on channels including cinema, outdoor, radio, online, and on catch-up TV channels. The RNLI is asking people to visit RNLI.org/RespectTheWater where they will find information on the effects of cold water shock and floating techniques. On social media search #RespectTheWater.

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