Traditional life-saving advice for those who accidentally fall into water has been turned on its head by a team of scientists working with RoSPA.
Instead of immediately attempting to swim or wave for help, researchers at the University of Portsmouth are urging people to “float first”.
The counter-intuitive advice is being advocated after tests showed that staying as still as possible in the first few minutes after tumbling into water increases survival time by enabling air trapped in clothing to keep the head above water, protecting the airways and slowing the rate at which the body is cooled.
With average water temperatures in the UK between 10-12°C, even relatively healthy individuals are at risk of suffering “cold shock” on immersion, which can trigger a loss of breathing control and increase the risk of inhaling water.
The study, “Float First: An Assessment of the Buoyancy Provided by Seasonal Clothing Assemblies Before and After Swimming”, also made clear, however, that this method should not replace the need for people to learn to swim, or, where appropriate, to wear lifejackets.
The research team is now calling for the “float first” approach to be taught as a survival skill to as many people as possible.
The project began last year after securing funds from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents’ scholarship scheme, which was set up after British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) donated £500,000 to support research that would have a significant impact on improving safety in the UK and around the world.
Its findings could prove very timely as late spring / early summer often brings a significant rise in the number of people who drown as a result of cold water immersion: often because water proves colder than expected on a warm day.
Between 1993 and 2003 an average of 445 people per year drowned in the UK (RoSPA drowning statistics 2000-2003).
Many of the victims accidentally fell into the water while fully or partially clothed and drowned within a short distance of land.
The most recently published figures show that 312 people drowned accidentally in 2006 – with the single biggest cause being people falling into inland waters.
Peter Cornall, RoSPA’s head of leisure safety, said: “It is essential that we shout about this pioneering research from the rooftops, because what sounds like counter-intuitive advice could save scores of lives each year.
“This is a survival skill that won’t come naturally to most of us, so it is important that we come to understand the meaning of it and give ourselves every chance of making it through a potentially deadly situation.”
Tom Mullarkey, RoSPA’s chief executive, said: “It is very satisfying to see our scholarship fund start to bear fruit in a way which could save many lives.”
Dr Martin Barwood, of the University of Portsmouth’s department of sport and exercise science, said: “Accidental immersion poses a threat to us all, particularly in the early spring when water temperatures are at their coldest. These findings will raise awareness of the threat posed by this hazardous environment, could help teach people to cope in such circumstances and ultimately survive their ordeal.
“After a couple of minutes floating we become accustomed to the cold and may be better able to remain afloat because of buoyancy in our clothes. It may now be possible to swim a short distance to safety.”
RoSPA will now look to develop ways of sharing the potentially life-saving “float first” message.