Water safety toolkit

Councils, as community leaders, play a vital role in tackling water safety in their area. Landowners as well as wider responsibilities. 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.


Overall deaths from accidental drowning have fallen in the last four years. However, in 2020, 254 people lost their lives in accidental drownings in the UK, with hundreds more having near drowning experiences, sometimes suffering life-changing injuries. Children can be particularly at risk. 

Strikingly a large proportion of victims did not leave home on the day they died intending to go into water of significant depth.  In 2020 nearly twice as many deaths happened whilst people were out walking, running or cycling compared to those who died whilst swimming which shows the importance of everyone being aware of the risks posed by water. Sadly, there has also been a rise in the number of suicides in water over the past few years.  

There is clearly more that needs to be done to tackle water safety and this toolkit suggests a number of ways councils might seek to work in partnership to tackle water safety in their area.  

The toolkit provides an overview of the steps councils should consider when looking at water safety in their local area. It draws on the Royal Life Saving Society’s (RLSS) work on creating a water safety action group and local water safety plan which also provides a useful practical guide. 

National Water Safety Forum – water safety principles 

Step 1 – Profile your area

It is important that councils have a clear idea of what is happening in their area before they start further work on water safety. The UK national drowning prevention strategy may provide an overview of the sorts of issues you might be facing locally. 

Data will provide a useful starting point to begin to profile your area. The Water Incident Database (WAID) provides a national picture of all fatal drowning incidents over a specified period, as well as some custom reports. There will be other sources of data for rescues and non-fatal accidents from organisations like the fire and rescue service, the Maritime and Coastal Agency (MCA), the Police, the Ambulance service and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. 

The websites of the National Water Safety Forum (NWSF), Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), RLSS and Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) have useful information that will help you when thinking about the specific issues in your area. RoSPA and the RLSS maybe commissioned to provide further data, analysis or support. 

Identifying and collating the appropriate data will provide an overview of where incidents are happening, the people who maybe most at risk of drowning, whether there are peak times of the year, if alcohol is an issue and if there have been changes over time etc. 

After councils have a clear understanding of the data and risk in their area, next consideration should be given to what interventions or activities are already underway and how effective they’ve been. For instance there may have already been improvements to lighting on a river front, the Community Safety Partnership may have done work, water safety could be included within the fire and rescue service Integrated Risk Management Plan or organisations like the RNLI could be doing work. 

There may already be a water safety partnership up and running that councils can be a part of. A coordinated approach is important to ensure that there is no duplication of effort across an area. 

Step 2 – People: who do councils need to engage with?

The next step for councils, if there is no existing partnership, will be to consider who they might engage with and how. The early scoping work on data and activities will provide a helpful basis for this work. 

There will be a range of stakeholders whose interest in the issue will vary and who will want to be involved in any work to a greater or lesser degree. Councils should be aware of their stakeholders and be able to consider how they can most effectively be engaged. 

Councils should consider engaging with:  

  • other statutory partners such as the fire and rescue service and the police, schools. 
  • Community Safety Partnerships bring together a range of statutory partners and maybe a useful place to start making links. 
  • water safety experts such as the MCA, RLSS, RNLI, ROSPA, the Canals and Rivers Trust.
  • other risk holders such as landowners or businesses undertaking water based activities, licensed premises on the water (the link between water safety and alcohol is clear).
  • other community groups that might have an interest, such as sport clubs or leisure providers that use water side locations for activities like running etc. 
  • organisations like the Environment Agency, the Mineral Product Association, utility companies
  • MPs and councillors

A stakeholder mapping exercise can be completed to determine how best to engage with each organisation, as well as consider their level of engagement in a water safety action group.  Stakeholders can then be contacted on the basis of the level of involvement, some would be best placed to be a part of the Water Safety Action Group, some might need to be consulted, and some might need to just be kept up to date. A communications plan will be key. 

There should also be consideration given to how you should engage with the local community on water safety issues as a part of you water safety work. This maybe through social media, planned press releases, a website etc. You may wish to explore whether to create an individual identity for your partnership. 

Step 3 – Planning

Consideration will need to be given to how a water safety and drowning prevention group will be constituted and how this group will create a water safety plan. 

Councils and their partners will need to consider what structure and processes need to be in place to run a group to design and deliver a water safety plan. Issues to consider are: 

  • Who will chair the group? 
  • Who will administer the meetings? 
  • What are the terms of reference? 
  • Who should be invited? 
  • What resources are available from the attendees? 
  • What should be included in an action plan? 
  • Will there need to be sub-groups on some specific issues? 

Once the group is constituted, the data and information gathered should be considered to input into designing a water safety plan, along with what each partner can contribute. Monitoring and evaluation of the activities of the group should be built in from the start. 

The National Water Safety Forum (NWSF) can provide support to councils and partnerships at the start of their journey. The NWSF is an association of organisations that have a wide variety of interests and responsibilities for water safety including sports governing bodies, rescue services, regulators, navigation and harbour authorities, local government, utilities, and other representative groups. It’s committed to ensuring communities have a standard methodology to work to in devising water safety plans and building risk profiles, assessments and capacity to respond. 

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has published a guide for managing beach safety. The guide is designed to assist coastal Local Authorities, and others who are in effective control of the beach, promote safety by assessing risks and preventing incidents.

Step 4 – Educate

There are a number of resources and campaigns already out there that councils can draw on to inform their work and to educate their communities. As previously mentioned 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. 

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?

  • Men – men accounted for 82% of total accidental drownings in 2020
  • Students and young adult drinkers – 61 people aged 15- 29 drowned in 2020  
  • Runners and walkers – The largest at risk group in 2020 35 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 – WAID figures as well as 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, or don’t know the dangerous spots etc. 

Children’s swimming lessons 

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.

Step 5 – Protection: exploring physical features

Many of those who accidentally drowned were out walking or running, and therefore not intending to enter the water. A risk assessment should be the starting point for identifying places where enhanced signage, engineering waterways, banks and access could be effectively used as a drowning prevention mechanism. The RLSS can support these risk assessments if necessary though councils may have done their own risk assessments. 

Water safety also 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 to produce a map showing lit routes which people are advised to take when walking in Durham after dark. It is displayed in licensed premises and university and council building across the city as well as being on numerous websites.

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

Step 6 – Response: exploring proactive and reactive response measures

A fatality from a drowning incident can happen within minutes. Responding effectively in a drowning incident will require education and training for members of the public, first responders and rescue personal. There maybe other people who maybe able to contribute towards water safety such as bouncers, wardens, shopkeepers, bartenders alongside first responders.

There are a series of already established training programmes, used and designed by a variety of water safety organisations. The programmes below have all been established for use in specific environments and activities:

  • National Water Safety Management Programme
  • National Vocational Beach Lifeguard Qualification
  • National Pool Lifeguard Qualification
  • Open Water Lifeguard
  • Multi agency capabilities for deploying response services for water related incidents
  • Community training and response – throwbag training, CPR (resuscitation), first responders
  • Project Shout – Progressing safety in open water activity
Step 7 – Review

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 to ensure that the interventions and activities contained within it are having an impact.

Activities, projects and campaigns undertaken by the water safety partnership either individually or collectively should be evaluated to measure how effective this work has been.