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Evolution of the RNLI's message for preventing drowning at sea

by Mark Jardine 11 Mar 07:00 PDT
Rough Seas on the RNLI Lifeboat Simulator © Mark Jardine

The RNLI has always been known for saving lives at sea, but the prevention message has taken a more and more prominent role in recent years. The aim is to firstly prevent the rescue having to happen in the first place, and secondly to give people the knowledge to have a better chance of survival in the time between the RNLI being alerted and their arrival at the scene.

Members of the GJW Direct team spent a day at the RNLI headquarters in Poole to learn more about the institution and its goals.

Tony Wafer of the RNLI Community Safety Team explains:

"The RNLI has always had prevention at its core, from its founding in 1824. The focus has been on how we tackle prevention through evidence for the last decade, since we've collected data on how people have lost their lives. Technology, innovation and how behaviour change has impacted society have given us lots of lessons. We now don't just preach to people to wear a lifejacket, but now tell them the benefits, looking at the reasons as why people don't wear lifejackets, working with the industry and manufacturers to break down those barriers, and encouraging the use of lifejackets and other safety measures, such as methods for calling for help."

In recent years technology has moved on a long way, allowing safety devices to be easily installed within a lifejacket and mobile phones now being ubiquitous. The key message though is to ensure that water users are actually wearing their lifejacket and secondly have their communication device, such as their mobile phone or marine VHF, accessible in the event of an emergency.

"Technology has made a huge advancement in the ability to find people at sea. The ergonomics and technology of lifejackets has made it even simpler for users check their lifejacket, and the RNLI offers advice on lifejacket maintenance. In terms of behaviour change, all the RNLI is trying to do is nudge people in the right direction. Items such as a small waterproof pouch to carry your phone can potentially save lives," said Tony.

The RNLI have also evolved their method for conveying the message to water users, moving on from 'impact' methods such as concrete messages with slogans on and showing the most dangerous fish in the sea being a Sea Bass, to an ambassador-based approach, where respected names within a niche, such as angling, to communicate the RNLI message on safety and preventing drowning as Tony described:

"We recognised a number of years ago that with, for example, rock anglers, we didn't have the voice which penetrated into that market. We saw when we studied their behaviours that there was a lack of understanding of the risk. The likes of concrete t-shirts and wellies was a trial to try and get that audience to think about risk differently. Where we are now on that journey is we've managed to secure an incredible ambassadorship with a couple of people within that audience the messages are the same, but they're coming from a different person. Ambassadors and partnerships can take these messages and have that voice much louder."

All of this is backed up by an evidence-based approach to preventing drowning. The RNLI break up the statistics into groups of water users, looking at which segments to concentrate on, knowing where the risks are and how to approach them.

"For a number of years now we've taken a far more targeted approach. We don't have endless resources, our volunteers are incredibly knowledgeable, but we have to use our donations wisely. Understanding our audiences is first port of call and following behaviour change methodologies, which look at the right interventions delivered by the right people and channels is vital," Tony explained.

When it comes to lifejacket safety, the RNLI's 'useless unless worn' campaign highlighted the fact that it doesn't matter how good your lifejacket is if you're not wearing it when disaster strikes, but more recently Community Safety Volunteers are going out amongst water users and encouraging them to bring their lifejackets and safety equipment for check-ups. Sam Hughes of the RNLI Community Safety team explains why they have taken this approach: "The RNLI currently have approximately 500 Community Safety Volunteers around the UK and Ireland, encouraging members of the public to get their lifejackets checked and serviced regularly according to the manufacturer's guidelines so that you know it's actually going to function at the time you need it. Our volunteers are trained to help show you what sort of checks you can do at home to make sure it will help you if you ever have to use it."

With the RNLI and GJW working together to prevent drowning, one of the features of GJW Direct's MyBoat portal is alerts for when a lifejacket, or any other item on your boat, needs servicing. Sam describes how this kind of marine industry collaboration help get the safety message out to even more people:

"Having a facility like the MyBoat platform is fantastic as people can add to the website what kit they have and it will send alerts to help remind water users when to get things done, just like when your TV Licence comes up for renewal."

James Kitt, Corporate Partnerships Manager at the RNLI, reinforces how working together with proactive marine industry companies help spread and reinforce their message:

"GJW Direct provide us with a captive audience where we can share bespoke messaging to their customers. It also shows GJW Direct customers that they are taking a responsible view on safety on the water. With a brand like GJW Direct it gives credence to our messaging, showing that we're all singing from the same hymn sheet consistence across the board embedding the kind of behaviour change that we're instigating."

Spreading the preventative message in this targeted manner through GJW Direct all helps the RNLI in their aim to reduce the number of drownings at sea as James describes:

"The overall target of the RNLI is to decrease coastal fatalities, and we've fixed ourselves a very ambitious target of halving accidental coastal fatalities around the UK and Irish coast by 2024. Our messaging isn't there to demonise the water, it's to promote safe usage of the water - what we want is for our crews to be able to pick up a live person rather than a dead body - so by taking a means for calling for help they are able to affect their rescue earlier and by wearing a lifejacket their safe time in the water can be extended. We have an obligation to our crews in a rescue capacity that we want them to pick up people who are still alive and by sharing our key safety messaging we can help keep water users safe."

The GJW Direct team visiting the RNLI were lucky enough to spend some time on the lifeboat simulator, including rescuing crew members from a burning tanker just outside Dover harbour. The experience was incredibly realistic and showed a small part of what goes in to a rescue and the training that all RNLI volunteers undertake.

Lev Osman, CEO of GJW Direct, was high in his praise of the RNLI and all its staff and volunteers:

"We've had a completely engaging day. I'm in awe and admiration for everything the RNLI do, the initiatives, the training, the dedication and putting their own lives at risk is just incredible to see. For GJW Direct it's an absolute privilege to be associated with the RNLI and I want to make sure that we deliver in a very meaningful way and spread the message of what the RNLI are doing moving forwards.

"It's a massive reassurance knowing the RNLI volunteers are out there for GJW Direct customers and all water users and we intend to impart their knowledge and experience to our policy holders and MyBoat users so that we help protect them while they enjoy themselves at sea.

"Safety is paramount, and for the last three years we have been developing as much of a safety culture as we possibly can. Working together with the RNLI is the icing on the cake.

"Our MyBoat portal complements what the RNLI is doing and we will gather some very useful content to populate MyBoat with to give additional resource and knowledge to our policy holders and the wider audience."

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