We're supporting Drowning Prevention and Water Safety Week

Tue 14 Apr, 2015

Fire and rescue services across the UK, including Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service, are supporting the Chief Fire Officers Association’s Drowning Prevention and Water Safety Week 2015.

There were 669 water-related fatalities in Great Britain in 2013 – two-and-a-half times the number of people who died in house fires that year

The campaign, which runs until Sunday 19 April, aims to raise awareness of the issue of ‘cold water shock’, which causes a number of fatalities every year. Many young people – even those who are strong swimmers – aren’t aware of the effect that it can have on their ability to swim in open water. 

Dawn Whittaker, the Chief Fire Officers’ Association’s water safety lead, said: “While reservoirs, lakes, rivers and other inland water may look safe and inviting, particularly on a warm day, there are hidden dangers below the surface that could make you ill, hurt you, and – at worst – could kill you.

“Cold water shock is a physical response that can not only affect your breathing, but will also reduce your muscle ability and can even lead to a heart attack. 

“Moving water, such as rivers, may look calm, but may have strong currents below the surface which can carry even strong swimmers into danger.

“And, of course, from out of the water or above, you may not be able to see dangerous obstructions such as large rocks or dead branches that can cause you injury.

“You may also want to consider the fact that open water is untreated, and may be polluted with bacteria and algae that can give you stomach upsets, or even with organisms that can cause a number of nasty illnesses."

Firefighters from Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes regularly visit lakes, rivers and other areas of open water where the public are known to swim to promote the message that the only safe place to swim is in a swimming pool

Last year, two people died after going into the lake at Bletchley’s Blue Lagoon Local Nature Reserve, and a boy drowned in the River Thames near Marlow

Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service has Water Rescue Units (pictured below) based at Beaconsfield Fire Station and Newport Pagnell Fire Station. Last year, Buckinghamshire & Milton Keynes Fire Authority invested £30,000 in replacing the rescue boats at both stations.

Top tips

  • The safest place to swim is in a supervised swimming pool. The water is clean, clear and warm, and there are lifeguards on hand if something goes wrong.
  • Warn your children of the risks, and know where they are when they are out playing.
  • Act responsibly near water, and never swim, even where allowed, after drinking alcohol.
  • If you see a swimmer is in difficulty or there is a risk of drowning, call 999 
  • At home, keep small children away from ponds and pools and make sure they are supervised in the bath. 

The dangers in detail

Cold water shock: 
Even on a warm day, the temperature of the water in a reservoir, quarry or lake can remain very cold. When you jump into a body of water you experience a cold-shock response. This is what happens:

  • You gasp for air, meaning that you could breathe in water.
  • You hyperventilate. This over-breathing can make you light-headed and, as your brain is deprived of oxygen, you may become disoriented.
  • Your body’s cold shock response, which speeds up the heart rate, may conflict with the diving response, which does the opposite, causing your heart to go into abnormal rhythms which can cause sudden death
  • Your muscles will become weaker. Your muscle ability can drop by as much as 25 per cent, so you may not be able to keep yourself afloat or pull yourself out.
  • Your body will shiver, which will affect your coordination and your swimming ability.

Currents: Moving water, such as rivers, may look calm, but they may have strong currents below the surface. Even reservoirs can have currents, caused by working machinery. Whether you’re a strong swimmer or not, currents can carry you into danger, trapping you against underwater obstructions or in weeds; pulling you away from where you can get out of the water; or dragging you further than you’re able to swim back.

Sickness: Open water can be polluted. Things that might make you ill include:

  • Rat urine, which can cause an illness called Weil’s Disease. This can initially cause flu-like symptoms between seven and 26 days after you swim and, if untreated, the secondary stage can cause death.
  • Cryptosporidium, a parasite that gives you bad stomach cramps and diarrhoea.
  • Trachoma, an eye infection that can lead to blindness.
  • Whipworm, worm eggs that hatch inside the body after being swallowed.
  • Toxic algae, which can cause skin rashes and stomach upsets.

What lies beneath: From out of the water, or above the water, you may not be able to see what’s under the water. That could be anything from large rocks to machinery; from shopping trolleys to dead branches, and even fish hooks or broken fishing line, all of which could injure you.

Alcohol consumption: Don’t swim if you have been drinking alcohol.

Swimming competency: Don’t assume because you can swim in a pool that you can deal with the challenges of open water swimming. Swim in safe areas, or where there is supervision or a lifeguard.