Fire Service Issue Water Safety Advice

Water safety advice is being issued by Oxfordshire County Council’s Fire and Rescue Service over concerns about the number of people getting into difficulty in the county’s waterways and lakes.

The latest awareness campaign coincides with the National Fire Chief Council’s Be Water Aware initiative, which runs from 25 April to 1 May.

Drowning in the UK is amongst the leading causes of accidental death. There were ten water related fatalities in Oxfordshire between 2020 and 2022.

Residents are being warned about the potential risks of open waters, how to stay safe; and what to do if someone gets into trouble in the water.

Deb Forder, Safety Manager for Oxfordshire County Council’s Fire and Rescue Service, said: “Many people who find themselves in trouble in open water had no intention of being in there. They might be cyclists, joggers, walkers who have accidently fallen in. Things like uneven paths, weather conditions, poor visibility, a lapse in concentration. These are some of the factors that can catch people out. Please consider things such as how safe is the route, carrying a whistle to draw attention if you do get into difficulties, putting your phone in a waterproof pouch, and walking with a friend.”

Even on a warm day, the temperature of a body of open water can remain very cold. Falling or intentionally jumping into water can result in a cold shock response.

Deb added, “You gasp for air. Meaning that you could breathe in water. You hyperventilate. This over-breathing can make you lightheaded 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. If you fall in remember; relax, lean back and float (see image) until you can control your breathing.”

Anyone witnessing someone in trouble in the water should call 999 or 112 and shout for help. They shouldn’t enter the water themselves; instead throw something in that floats.

Oxfordshire County Council’s Fire and Rescue Service warns that there are other dangers of open water. Be aware that:

  • Reservoirs, lakes, rivers and other inland water may look safe and inviting, particularly on a warm day. But there are hidden dangers below the surface that could make people ill, cause injury; even kill.
  • Even on a warm day, the temperature of the water in a reservoir, quarry or lake can remain very cold. The low water temperature can numb limbs and claim lives.
  • From the surface, it is not always possible to see what is under the water. This could be anything from large rocks to machinery; from shopping trolleys to branches, and even fish hooks or broken fishing line, all of which could cause injury.
  • Moving water, such as rivers, might look calm but there could be strong currents below the surface. Even reservoirs have currents, caused by working machinery. Whether or not someone is a strong swimmer, currents can carry them into danger.

Across the UK, in 2020, over 250 people drowned needlessly and thousands more suffered injury, some life changing, through near-drowning experiences.

Oxfordshire is criss-crossed by rivers, streams, canals. Activities that are known to lead to the highest number of fatalities are walking, running, swimming, jumping or diving in.

Deb commented, “A simple change to our behaviour can reduce the risk of drowning. Avoiding high risk areas, being aware of your surroundings and knowing how to react if you or someone else falls in can help save lives. The advice is to expect the unexpected when you’re in the water. The shock of cold water will make your muscles become weaker; 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. Respect the water, even if you’re a good swimmer and familiar with the river, lake or reservoir. Be water aware.”