With over 7,000 miles of coastline in the UK and over 1,100 designated bathing beaches 1, it is surprising that the responsibility for the provision of safety services on these beaches has never been clear 2. Her Majesty’s Coastguard (HMCG), which is part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) 3, has a clear mandate for the initiation and coordination of Search and Rescue (SAR) from the near shore to offshore. However, there is no statutory duty to provide a lifeguard service or other safety measures on the beaches 2 although it is generally accepted that the local authority or the landowner is responsible for beach safety.
Historically, lifesaving clubs have tried to protect visitors to UK beaches by providing voluntary patrols. The formation of these clubs has often been in response to a perceived local need, more often as a result of a series of tragedies. The majority of clubs in the UK belong to Surf Life Saving Great Britain (SLSGB) or the Royal Life Saving Society UK (RLSS UK). Both organisations offer training and qualification schemes for beach lifeguards and, along with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) and HMCG, they have tried to set national standards for beach safety.
During the last 20 years, the advent of a tourist-driven economy and the need to offer a more regular weekday service throughout the Summer season meant that local authorities began to supply the majority of paid lifeguards on a seasonal basis, often replacing the volunteer patrols. However, because of the lack of clarity over who is responsible for beach safety and also because there has been no statutory requirement to provide a lifeguard service, local authorities often invested the bare minimum, sometimes providing dangerously low levels of cover. With no national standard for signage, uniform, patrol hours, equipment, training and communications, this led to an ad hoc approach. Quite often, local authorities operated outside the recommendations made by SLSGB and RLSS UK and failed to realise the importance of investing in the volunteer clubs, which not only provided trained lifeguards but also played an important social role in the local community.
Naturally, the voluntary lifesaving clubs and the paid ‘professional’ lifeguards became increasingly disillusioned with the lack of investment and, in many cases, the reduction in expenditure in so-called low priority service areas. The lack of equipment, often poorly maintained, put the lives of the lifeguards at risk. Often coupled with a lack of even the most basic facilities, the plight of the UK lifeguard service was in desperate need of support. As the new millennium arrived, SLSGB, the RLSS UK and the newly formed National Beach Safety Council (NBSC), which represented the coastal local authorities, approached the RNLI for help.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution
In the same way that lifesaving clubs had formed, lifeboat stations also emerged from a local need, often in response to a local tragedy. However, whilst the first beach lifesaving clubs can be traced back some 50 or so years, the first lifeboat stations were established over 200 years ago 4. In 1824, Sir William Hillary founded the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, later to become the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Since then the RNLI has gone on to be the foremost voluntary life boating organisation in the world currently providing an inshore and offshore SAR service out to 100 nautical miles.
Although the RNLI provides the service to the maritime community under a Royal Charter, it receives no Government funding and relies almost entirely on voluntary contributions and legacies to fund its circa £130M per annum running costs. The long esteemed history and unique position that the RNLI enjoys as a true ‘British Institution’ has created a culture of giving that has seen its funds grow considerably over the years and allowed the RNLI to do more to save lives at sea. Arguably, this may have contributed to the lack of profile and funding for organisations such as SLSGB and RLSS UK but it allowed the RNLI to respond positively when they were approached for help.
The RNLI has had a number of links with beach life guarding over its history. Two examples that typify these links are worthy of note here. In 1824, the first RNLI Gold Medal for Gallantry was awarded to Charles Fremantle of the Lymington Coastguard for swimming with a line from a beach to rescue the crew from the Swedish brigantine Carl Jean that was in difficulties close to the shore near Christchurch 5. More recently, in 1962, Warren Mitchell, an Australian lifeguard working at Watergate Bay on the north Cornwall coast, saw a new inflatable class of lifeboat being trialled by the RNLI. This was the forerunner to the RNLI’s D class inshore lifeboat and it gave Mitchell the inspiration and idea to return to Australia and invent the inshore rescue boat (IRB) 6. This piece of equipment, responsible for saving many thousands of lives worldwide, has come full circle and was introduced to the RNLI in 2001 where it now forms the backbone of the RNLI lifeguards’ rescue capability.
The RNLI lifeboat service
The RNLI provides a lifeboat service as part of the commitment to the UK and RoI search and rescue framework. The provision of the service aims to meet three key performance standards:
- achieve an average launch time of 10 minutes from notification
- reach all notified casualties where a risk of life exists, in all weathers, out to a maximum of 100 nautical miles
- reach at least 90% of all casualties within 10 nautical miles of lifeboat stations within 30 minutes of launch in all weathers.
To do this, the RNLI deploys a strategically located fleet of 322 all-weather lifeboats (ALBs), which are available at all times, and tactically placed inshore lifeboats (ILBs), which are subject to weather limitations. Along with a combined relief fleet of 112 lifeboats this ensures the service is provided 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. The lifeboats are housed in or moored close to purpose-built lifeboat stations and, due to their geographical diversity and the challenges of the rugged UK coastline, often require sophisticated launch and recovery methods (Photo 1).
Photo 1: Padstow Tamar class lifeboat and new slipway boathouse
The stations are grouped within six geographical divisions (South, West, East, North, Scotland and Ireland), each having its own administrative, technical and inspectorate support staff, totalling some 200 people. The RNLI Headquarters is in Poole, Dorset, which employs over 600 full-time management, technical, logistic and fundraising and communications staff. Poole is also home to The Lifeboat College, a purpose-built 60-bed residential training college with a sea survival pool and lifeboat simulator. A repair yard and modern stores facility complete a campus-style set up that is one of the most sophisticated and well-resourced Headquarters of a charitable rescue organisation in the world. The purpose of the full-time staff is to support the needs of some 4,500 volunteer lifeboat men and women who risk their lives on a daily basis. Since the RNLI began, these volunteers have saved over 137,000 lives and currently they save, on average, 23 people every day. The RNLI also has a comprehensive fundraising support structure with regions, branches and guilds that utilises several thousand volunteer fundraisers and several hundred paid specialist staff (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Map of UK and RoI showing RNLI lifeboat stations and lifeguard areas (July 2007)
The RNLI’s decision to provide help to the lifesaving community required a different approach to saving lives. As the lifeboat service was predominantly reactive, and the requirement for a lifeguard service was to be proactive, it was impossible merely to adapt the existing lifeboat assets to address the safety requirement on beaches. In 2001, the RNLI piloted a new Beach Rescue service on 43 beaches in the south west of England, essentially taking over and significantly improving the existing local authority lifeguard service. The RNLI therefore set about demonstrating that it could, and should, provide a joined up service from the beach to the open sea.
In the initial phase the RNLI formed a project team with key representatives from SLSGB and RLSS UK to provide advice and guidance. Adam Wooler (author of this paper), then the CEO of SLSGB, was seconded to the RNLI to head up the project team, and key staff members from local authorities were seconded to oversee the provision of the lifeguard service itself.
Such a venture, away from the traditional role that the RNLI had played for over 180 years, was a major leap of faith for the organisation. The RNLI Trustees had to balance the perceived increased risk to reputation with the provision of what was essentially a policing role combined with the more traditional rescue service. There was an increased exposure to the potential risk of litigation if things went wrong as the whole issue of who was responsible for beach safety was still not clear. There were also concerns that the traditional supporters of the RNLI, whose generosity the organisation was totally dependent upon, would not share the enthusiasm of the RNLI management. Indeed, many supporters saw this as the responsibility of the local authorities and something the RNLI as a charity should not be doing. The image problem was also one of the first hurdles to overcome. The employment of young lifeguards (with their own unique surf culture) who were paid, rather than being volunteers like the older ‘sensible’ lifeboat crews, did not sit well with some RNLI crew, supporters and even staff.
In addition, the initial reaction from lifesaving clubs and the international lifesaving community, which is represented by the International Life Saving Federation (ILS), was one of suspicion and in some cases open concern. Such a large, comparatively wealthy organisation such as the RNLI was seen by some to be a threat to their independence and identity. The potential to provide help and support was seen as the ‘carrot’ but the fear that there was going to be a ‘stick’ created a climate of mistrust that has taken some time to dispel. In the case of the RNLI lifeboat stations, there was a mixed response that went from open hostility, as much generated by a perceived threat to their status within the organisation as well as the risk of being associated with a less professional ‘badly behaved bunch of surfers’, to an open arms approach that embraced the humanitarian rationale behind trying to save more lives.
Volunteering for a lifesaving organisation is, by its very nature, emotive. For someone to give up their free time to put their own life at risk requires dedication and passion. A feeling of pride in both the organisation and the local group they represent is part of this requirement and so it is only natural for emotions to run high when a new way of doing things is introduced.
To counteract the fears within the lifeboat crews and lifesaving volunteers, key members of the project team, together with representatives from SLSGB and the RLSS UK, visited lifeboat stations and lifesaving clubs to explain the positive benefits of the project and answer any concerns directly. A comprehensive communications plan was implemented using examples of how the RNLI and the lifeguards were benefiting from the relationship. This gradually persuaded most to give the new initiative a ‘fair wind’.
Entering into formal service level agreements, as well as asking the local authorities to provide a subvention, equal to the cost of employing the lifeguards themselves, helped allay the concerns about paying lifeguards instead of having volunteers.
However, it took a number of years for the most hardened doubters to be won over. This was to be expected – only by showing how the relationship can work and for people to be exposed to the benefits themselves will anything new be fully accepted.
By the end of the first trial year (2001), RNLI lifeguards had come into contact with over 3M beach visitors 7 and had saved 20 lives and rescued 231 people. These statistics spoke for themselves and the project was given the go ahead to become an integral part of the RNLI rescue service.
Branding and fundraising
The key issue of branding caused much heated debate in the initial stages of the project. Whilst SLSGB and the RLSS UK favoured a new brand, which was distinct and not obviously ‘RNLI’, this did not sit well with an organisation that thought it should have the lead branding in return for the considerable investment in the service.
The brand leverage potential of being involved in something that brought the organisation in contact with a new target audience – predominantly younger people and families – was considerable and something that the RNLI was open about as a secondary, but clearly important, driver for becoming involved in beach life guarding.
The RNLI receives over 60% of its funding from legacies. As the relevance of an organisation that was built upon the traditions of a great seafaring and fishing nation has declined on a par with the decline in the fishing fleet and shipbuilding industry, so the prediction is that legacies will eventually fall as the older generation dies off. Exposure to a new, younger audience of beach goers presented opportunities to widen the appeal of the RNLI and to increase its relevance to the UK’s growing multicultural population.
With the high profile of the RNLI’s new presence on the beaches, many of the voluntary clubs feared that this presence would have a negative impact on their ability to maintain their own local profile and hence raise funds. Although there have been claims that this has been the case, the evidence has been anecdotal and those clubs that have entered into agreements with the RNLI to conduct joint fundraising initiatives have benefited from the power of the RNLI brand.
The branding of the RNLI lifeguards service has changed numerous times from Beach Rescue to Beach Lifeguards and now to RNLI Lifeguards, reflecting the changing importance within the organisation itself.
The RNLI now has two core brands, Lifeboats and Lifeguards (Figure 2), and is committed to the provision of a joined up national lifeboat and lifeguard service.
Recently the RNLI’s Vision was changed to include lifeguarding: ‘To be recognised universally as the most effective, innovative and dependable lifeboat and lifeguard service.’ This marks a significant change to the RNLI’s 180-year history and is a remarkable success story of how a highly traditional organisation has adapted to the changing social and financial climate to embrace a new way of saving lives that has benefited the lifesaving community, the RNLI itself and of course those whose lives have been saved.
Results and discussion
It was clear from the outset that by investing more in the lifeguard service the quality and standards would rise as well as the ability to do more. The investment the RNLI made in equipment, buildings, protective clothing and training has had a significant impact on the lifeguard services that were previously run by local authorities. The lifeguards themselves feel looked after and in turn are able to look after a greater number of beach visitors more effectively and efficiently. The public now sees a uniformly high standard service that provides them with an air of reassurance and knowledge that an organisation that comes with a legacy of saving lives is looking after them.
Life guarding was often seen as the poor relation to the other emergency services. Indeed, Her Majesty’s Coastguard often declined to believe some of the rescue figures put forward by the local authorities. It came as a shock to them when the RNLI not only confirmed these figures but, after the introduction of a new national beach-related incident recording system (BEAREM) with the systems, procedures and the discipline needed to collect the statistics accurately, the figures dramatically increased.
The requirement to fall in line with existing RNLI policies and procedures often brought the two cultures head to head, none more so than when trying to determine an appropriate retirement age for a lifeguard. For many years the RNLI required all-weather lifeboat crew members to retire at 55 and inshore lifeboat crew members to retire at 45. These ages were based on sound medical opinion at the time and were related to the degeneration of the body through the forces the body was exposed to, often for long periods when the lifeboat was on an extended service. However, lifeguards had never been subject to a fixed retirement age, relying instead on a fitness and skills test conducted on an annual basis. Whilst the RNLI’s Medical and Survival Sub-Committee was happy to allow this system to remain, the committee members wanted to see the rationale behind the tests.
As there was a lack of scientific evidence worldwide to support such tests, fitness standards research was commissioned by the RNLI in 2002. This research became the first of a series of groundbreaking academic papers produced by the University of Portsmouth 8, 9, 10 and 11. The success and international acclaim for this research spurred the RNLI to revisit its position on retirement ages for lifeboat crews and, following further research by the University of Portsmouth 12, the crews themselves are now subject to regular fitness testing and, as a result, a more flexible approach to retirement ages has been established.
The fitness culture that life guarding has brought into the RNLI has been matched by the high standards that the RNLI has introduced to life guarding. The RNLI, being a maritime service with strong links to the professional maritime organisations’ way of doing things, has a certain discipline running throughout the organisation that lifeguards often lacked. Very soon, lifeguards were required to amend their dress code and to look after their equipment in a way that simply had never been expected in the past.
Lifeguards and lifeboat crews began working together on joint exercises and on actual rescues, soon learning to respect each other’s capabilities and distinct role. Whilst lifeboat crews viewed the near shore and the surf as difficult environments to operate in, the lifeguards felt most comfortable here as they had perfected their skills of boat handling and swimming in these areas. The exchange of skills and techniques for operating in both environments has started to take place and can only continue to benefit the two arms of the organisation and ultimately the public, which is in safer, better trained and more experienced hands.
The attitude of lifeguards to their job has also been influenced by whom they represent. By representing a charity rather than a local authority, the lifeguards have been taught to look at every person who visits the beach as a potential donor and act accordingly. During a new lifeguard’s induction, a visit to the RNLI Headquarters and the local lifeboat station is mandatory, thereby fostering the link with the parent organisation and reinforcing the primary historical role the RNLI has played in life boating.
The additional training the lifeguards now receive has elevated the role of a lifeguard within the emergency services and SAR framework and the RNLI lifeguard service is now considered as a ‘nursery’ for those wishing to progress into the more recognised emergency services of the Police, Fire and Ambulance. The training includes a 3-day emergency medical qualification delivered by the Ambulance Authority, four-wheel drive and all-terrain vehicle driving skills, inshore rescue boat and rescue watercraft skills, and leadership and management training for senior lifeguards and supervisors. This training has been organised and delivered using the same model and often the same trainers that provide the lifeboat crews with their training, thereby ensuring a commonality of standards and techniques where applicable.
The RNLI lifeguard service
The RNLI now provides a service on 71 beaches to 9 local authorities and a number of local landowners under a service level agreement. The local authority, using an agreed funding formula, pays towards the cost of the service, which equates to the seasonal salary costs of the lifeguards and is normally 40% of the total cost. The RNLI provides the remaining 60% of the funding that covers clothing, equipment, training, management and facilities. The service level agreements ensure that the RNLI provides the service on behalf of a third party and therefore does not take on the responsibility for the provision of the service. This reduces the risk of litigation, although necessary third party liability insurances are also in place.
The RNLI lifeguard service is provided on beaches following a comprehensive risk assessment. This is conducted using a process underpinned by a scientific classification of UK beaches being developed by the University of Plymouth 13. The RNLI ‘declares’ to patrol an area delimited by red and yellow flags out to 300m from the water’s edge. This distance has been determined from the fitness standards research 8, which in turn underpins the baseline performance standard that says RNLI lifeguards will:
- reach any beach casualty up to 300m from shore, within the flags on RNLI lifeguard-patrolled beaches, within 3½ minutes.
To provide the lifeguard service, the RNLI currently employs over 400 lifeguards during the Summer season, which runs from 1 May to the end of September. A full-time management and administrative team of over 20 people and a Headquarters team of 10 support the lifeguards. A strict maintenance and technical support regime, which mirrors the system supporting the lifeboats and lifeboat crews, has been put in place and, wherever possible, technicians have been cross-trained to provide support to both the lifeboats and the lifeguards services.
A national beach safety and education strategy also underpins the lifeguard service. As well as the more traditional school visits, literature, and safety education delivery methods for beach safety information, the RNLI Beach Safety team has recently published two key standards documents to help local authorities with their beach safety signs, flags and symbols 14, and public rescue equipment 15 and 16.
In 2006, 64% of the UK’s population visited the coast at least once 7 and water sports, including surfing, body boarding 17 and kite surfing 18, have increased by over 300% in recent years. In response to this increasing need, the RNLI intends to double the number of beaches on which it provides lifeguards over the next 5 years. The future aim is to provide lifeguards on every beach that warrants them in the UK and RoI over the next 10 to 15 years.
This rapid growth doesn’t come without its challenges, not least managing the perception of the lifeboat crews following a recent decision to reconfigure the lifeboat service to reflect the greater speed of the modern fleet of lifeboats matched against the changing requirement to rescue more recreational sea-going members of the public closer to the shore. The inevitable downsizing of the lifeboat fleet with the advent of these more capable craft, and a corresponding expansion of lifeguard cover, needs careful managing from a public relations perspective. However, the valuable lessons learned from the introduction of the lifeguard service will be utilised to placate those that doubt the RNLI’s resolve to provide the most efficient, cost effective modern lifeboat and lifeguard service where there is a clearly defined need.
The decision by the RNLI Trustees to expand the lifeguard service has, until recently, been dependent upon clarity being given by the UK Government on the issue of responsibility for beach safety. However, although the RNLI has decided to implement its roll-out plans without this being given, it continues to lobby Government in this area. With clarity for responsibility comes clarity on who should fund the service. Whilst the RNLI is currently both capable and content with funding at least 60% of the cost, it does not wish to be held responsible for providing the service in perpetuity should its financial position change dramatically. The RNLI is predominantly a lifeboat organisation and should its circumstances change it has pledged to revert back to its core business of saving lives at sea using lifeboats. Hopefully the situation will never occur because the moral dilemma provided by having to withdraw from some beaches, and the potential negative impact this will have on the RNLI’s reputation, would make such a decision extremely difficult.
Currently there is an imbalance in the way lifeguards are provided – they are predominantly paid lifeguards rather than being volunteers. In order to address this imbalance the RNLI is soon to embark on a national lifeguard volunteer development programme. In collaboration with its strategic partner SLSGB, the RNLI aims to encourage lifesaving clubs to provide more volunteer patrols to either replace or to supplement the paid lifeguards. Although the volunteers will be patrolling as part of the overall service being provided by the RNLI to local authorities, the volunteers will be jointly branded RNLI and SLSGB.
The relationship between these two organisations has grown over recent years and the synergy is allowing a number of collaborative agreements to be signed on training, communications and governance under a joint strategic partnership. To embrace the current club structure will, however, require a further shift in the RNLI’s traditional approach to governance. Whilst the RNLI’s ‘top down’ management structure is extremely effective, this autocratic system is in direct contrast with the ‘bottom up’ approach that the perhaps overly democratic and often undermined SLSGB currently has. However, being mindful of the genuine concerns for loss of identity, with careful management of expectations and by allowing the individual, club or even the organisation as a whole to make its own choices, the gradual unification of the RNLI, SLSGB, lifeboat stations and lifesaving clubs to create one single effective ‘joined up’ lifesaving service is realisable in the not too distant future.
A new strategic partnership agreement between the RNLI and Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) has cemented a relationship that has been growing since the RNLI became more closely in beach life guarding. Many of the life guarding methods, developed over the years by the SLSA, have been imported via their sister organisation SLSGB. There have been a number of staff and lifeguards from Australia employed as part of official exchange programmes and numerous visits and secondments between both organisations. The publication of SLSA’s new strategic plan, entitled Beyond the flags 19, has been underpinned by the recent gift from the RNLI of two B class Atlantic inshore lifeboats shows the influence the RNLI has had and demonstrates the benefits of a lifeboat organisation expanding into life guarding. For SLSA to consider doing the same, albeit in reverse by collaborating with existing lifeboat organisations, is surely a positive sign for other similarly placed organisations to consider. This positive collaboration will be built on by the International Maritime Rescue Federation (formerly the International Lifeboat Federation) whose chairmanship by the Operations Director of the RNLI, a co-author of this paper, surely bodes well for further collaborative ventures with its sister organisation ILS.
There have been a number of lessons learned during the 7 years since the inception of the Beach Rescue project. Communications have not always been as good as they could have been and the style of communicating, as much as the message itself, has often led to difficulties. Effective, open and honest communication is often the key to acceptance, even if initially the message is not necessarily palatable. If delivered with integrity, the communication of change, however inevitable, is normally greeted with similar integrity.
Change on this scale is something that the RNLI has not been used to and its approach to change management has needed updating in light of the experience of taking on such a project. However, the fundamentally sound ethos of providing a joined up service to save more lives is unquestionable. It has served the Institution well as it has slowly changed course to head in a direction that may well prove to be its financial sustentation as well as providing it with an unquestionably strong moral platform as it goes forward as a bigger, stronger and more rounded organisation.
Since 2001 RNLI lifeguards have saved 256 lives and attended over 43,000 incidents 20. These statistics speak for themselves. The introduction of a lifeguard service is arguably one of the greatest success stories in the RNLI’s recent history.
Photo 2: The RNLI lifeboat and lifeguard service together with HM Coastguard, Royal Navy helicopter and other local emergency services (Photo by Nigel Millard)
As the joined up lifesaving service expands, being able to claim that the RNLI truly provides a ‘ring of safety’ around the coastline of the UK and RoI is a powerful message that will position the RNLI as perhaps the greatest British Institution ever.