Water safety toolkit

The LGA has produced a water safety toolkit for councils, to ensure both locals and visitors enjoy the natural environment safely whether on the coast or inland.


Drowning accounts for a similar number of deaths in England and Wales as housefires - between 187 and 278 in 2016.

One of the striking characteristics of data on accidental drownings is that a large proportion of victims did not leave home on the day they died, intending to go into water of significant depth. More than twice as many people drown while out walking or running than while swimming.

Attempting to retrieving people, animals and objects from the water and drowning while playing on or in the water (paddling etc) are other significant causes of drowning.

Councils want communities to enjoy open spaces and leisure facilities in their areas and to ensure that both locals and visitors enjoy the natural environment safely. The LGA has produced a 10 step guide to assist councils in achieving this aim.

The CSP will provide links to key partners such as the local fire and rescue service. These partners can help advise on drawing up a water safety plan. In particular the police and the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) should have statistics on incidents. You may wish to consider a specific river safety group as has been done in Bath.

It is estimated that for every drowning fatality there are eight incidents which leave people with life changing injuries. An analysis of recent incidents including near misses is vital in establishing the measures that may be required. The police and/or FRS should be able to help with this.

The Water Incident Database (WAID) provides a national picture. The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) is encouraging FRSs to report non-fatal incidents to WAID in order to improve data. Depending on the level of risk you may wish to consider commissioning advice from an organisation such as RoSPA, who have assisted cities such as Durham and York with identifying their water safety priorities.

RoSPA's review of water safety in York can be found here. The websites of the National Water Safety Forum (NWSF), Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), Royal Lifesaving Society (RLSS) and Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) have useful information that will help you when thinking about the specific issues in your area.

Apart from the council itself, these will include:

  • landowners whose property includes waterfront areas, lakes and ponds etc
  • anyone offering water-based or waterside activities, including schools, clubs, scouts etc
  • licensed premises near towpaths and other locations where the water may seem attractive “or the waterside footway may be dangerous" to those who have been drinking. While it may prove difficult to formally link this risk to the licence itself, the link between alcohol and water safety is clear.

All of the above should already be considering their responsibilities for water safety – getting them to talk to each other – and to you - can only help.

‘All recreational activity organisations should have a clear strategic risk assessment and plans that address key risks’.
National Drowning Prevention Strategy’s 2019 target.

These may include:

  • waterside businesses
  • running and cycling clubs who may use waterside routes
  • anglers organisations and fisheries
  • schools and colleges
  • universities (including students' unions and student accommodation providers)
  • public health.

'Sport governing bodies and organisations play a key role in demonstrating and spreading good practice, and this can be shared with their members'
National Drowning Prevention Strategy.

Examples of local partnership work:

Council officers and Avon Fire and Rescue are currently supporting students from the City of Bath College on a personal safety campaign (#GotYaBack) which was rolled out across all three major educational establishments of Bath College, Bath Spa University and the University of Bath in March 2015.

The RNLI is working with local areas including Kingston and Scarborough to fund local signage and children's education programmes.

Are there measures you can take to reduce or remove the risks, such as physical barriers, grab rails, or improved lighting?

Are the dangers clear? Could better signage help?

Is there a case for providing rescue equipment or training local businesses?

Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) can provide training in some circumstances and will be able to advise on this.

For some councils it may be sensible to combine activity around water safety with messages around other dangers associated with cliffs. East Devon District Council has addressed this issue by asking residents to submit photographs of cliff falls occurring which it can use on warning signs to bring home the dangers to tourists.

Flooding presents its own risks. In areas prone to floodwater advising drivers not to attempt to cross flooded roads can be a key message. Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service is training waterside business workers and members of the public on how to throw lines (also donated by the FRS) to anyone falling into the docks.

The National Water Safety Forum may be able to assist if CSP partners cannot cover all that is needed. The NWSF is committed to ensuring communities have a standard methodology to work to in devising such plans and building risk profiles, assessments and capacity to respond.

The forum is committed to ‘a collaborative approach, seeking to work with those with greater level of risk, and with those local organisations, groups and communities already committed to increasing water safety and reducing risk’.

A communications plan can help ensure that all partners are working together in a way that maximises the impact of their efforts and emphasises key messages.

Consider creating a section for water safety on website, or providing a link to one on your FRS website. This should include safety advice. Your FRS will be able to advise.

York City Council used beermats to publicise the danger of jumping into the city’s rivers as part of its drowning prevention work in 2014. It also used videos to highlight the risks. A similar scheme operates in Shrewsbury.

National campaigns can provide a useful framework on which to hang local messages. The NFCC, RNLI,and the Royal Lifesaving Society's Drowning Prevention Week and Don't Drink and Drown campaigns are good examples.

Are there specific audiences you need to address? The National Fire Chiefs Council has identified the following specific groups as being at risk:

  • Anglers - This is the smallest of our target groups but nearly twice as many people die fishing as they do sailing.
  • Students and young adult drinkers - People aged 15- 29 drowned in 2015 with 35 per cent (25) of these drowning victims having alcohol in their system.
  • Runners and walkers - The largest at risk group in 2015 25 per cent of people who accidentally drowned were running or walking near water.
  • Older walkers - May have underlying health conditions and have an increased risk of tripping or falling.
  • Dog walkers - Although WAID does not have data on dog walkers that drown, feedback from FRSs indicate that people attempting animal rescue often need rescuing themselves.

In addition several councils have told the LGA that they have issues with particular beaches where tides and other local conditions are understood by residents but not by tourists. It is therefore worth considering how to target information at visitors. However, it is important not to assume that only visitors get cut off by the tides, don’t know the dangerous spots etc.

Every child should have the opportunity to learn to swim and receive water safety education at primary school and where required at Key Stage 3.

Forty-five per cent of children aged 7-11 cannot swim 25 metres unaided. Learning to swim is only part of what children need to stay safe in or near water however. They need to be taught to respect the water, to understand the tides and currents and other hazards can drown even strong swimmers, and in particular they need to know about cold water shock.

Think about opportunities to convey these messages during swimming lessons, both at school and leisure centres.

Water safety needs to be taken into account when considering waterside developments and changes of use applications.

One outcome of Durham City Council’s work with RoSPA was a new policy to ensure that all new builds are planned with water safety in mind.

Embed water safety in other initiatives. In Shrewsbury the local fire service offer training to street pastors (volunteers who make themselves available to help people who have become vulnerable in the evening) in river rescues.

Water safety risks change as new developments are built, new businesses are established and new trends emerge.

New risks may be identified through experience. The water safety plan should be reviewed regularly and updated as necessary.