Lives have been saved in the UK and internationally thanks to improved water safety guidelines and public information informed by University of Portsmouth research.
Each year drowning accounts for around 320,000 deaths globally. Many people do not know how to respond upon finding themselves suddenly in open water or struggling in water.
What did we do?
Mike Tipton and his team extensively researched the potentially fatal ‘cold shock’ response exhibited in sudden exposure to cold water, and the dangers of anxiety and threat appraisal in these situations, finding that anxiety increased the risk of cold water immersion. The research determined that the actions taken before and during the initial minutes of immersion are critical to survival, leading to the development of a series of water safety measures, informing coordination of rescue efforts, and shaping national and international campaigns.
Over 100,000 children have received ‘Swim Safe’ training which advocates the safety measures proposed by Mike Tipton and his team. The ‘float first’ technique is recommended by the UK Coastguard to 999 callers for maritime in-water incidents, as well as various national and international maritime and healthcare bodies.
The ‘Respect the Water’ campaign detailing crucial water safety advice reached millions of people across social media, print and broadcast media, a dedicated website, and YouTube. This has resulted in an increased awareness and understanding of water safety and behaviour changes. This in turn has saved lives, with some individuals explicitly stating knowledge gained from the campaign as the reason for their survival.
The international use of safety measures designed by the team at University of Portsmouth places this research as central to the rescue and survival of countless individuals.
Float to live
Drowning is the second or third
most common cause of accidental death around
We lose around about a thousand people
a day. In the UK, it's a death about
every 20 hours, a child a week.
Nearly half of the deaths are people
under the age of 15.
That loss of a life, of
a potential, of a contribution to society.
That's the driver to try and help
people survive the experience
of going into cold water.
The background to this project
certainly started in '83 with my
PhD, which was in human responses to cold
water immersion and adaptation to cold.
And pretty much everything we've done
from there has made some contribution.
We work with lots of external organisations.
Over the years, the Royal National Lifeboat
Institution have supported
our research and have used our research a
lot. We work with Surf Life Saving GB.
We work with the Coast Guard.
We work with the Fire and Rescue Service.
They cover what we do when we work with all
the groups -- the fantastic groups we work
with -- is from lab to lifesaving.
So we can produce the science, and
we can interpret that science, and then they
can take it and turn it into campaigns
like Float to Live.
You can probably trace everything that's
happened subsequently to people just before
they go into the water, people as they
go into the water and people five minutes
after they've been in the water.
When they go into water, it's impossible for
them to breath-hold.
They take a gasp, which is two to three
litres. Just with that first, [INHALE],
you've crossed the lethal dose for drowning.
Now, once the skin gets down to water
temperature, which takes about a minute or
two, then that response
goes away. And so, if you look now five
minutes into an immersion, you will see the
responses are much lower.
And so that led us to conclude that
the majority of these deaths that
are occurring in the first minutes of
immersion are due to cold shock. If you can get through that phase, you've now got a much
better chance of surviving.
And what you've got to do to get through
that phase is float to live.
It's a great privilege and an honour to work
with these organisations with the common
purpose of saving lives at sea.
I was at a conference, it was called Coast
Safe, which is a collaboration between
various maritime organisations in Devon
and Cornwall, which actually came
about following a tragic incident in North Cornwall.
And Mike introduced
the concept of float to live.
From this, the emergency services that were
there, which was ambulance, police, fire,
coastguard, took the information
and came across a decision that we would
impart this data, this information
source, into our operations rooms so that
when we would get phone calls of people in
difficulty in the water if we could get a
message that person that was in the water to
lie back and float that they would
have a better chance of survival.
So the research from the University of
Portsmouth has been absolutely critical to
the success of the RNLI's Float to Live campaign.
Drowning numbers in the UK around the coast
have been in a gradual decline over the last
four to five years.
And whilst we can't attribute that fully
to the impact of the campaign, we would like
to think we are contributing to making
a difference there and to the point that we
have between 25 and 30 survivors
stories who have proactively contacted the
RNLI now to say that the float to live
advice has helped save their life.
And so, we would suggest that's probably the
tip of the iceberg of the really proactive
people that have actually come forward to
us. So we're really proud of the impact that
this had and the fact that float to live is
now sort of universally accepted
in the UK as one of our national safety
messages, and it's talked about as part of
the Coast Guard script.
If someone calls in to say there's someone
drowning in the water to talk through what
to do. It's been picked up by schools.
We know it's a lifesaver now, and hopefully,
it'll save many more lives in the future.
The research at the University and Professor
Mike Tipton and his team, because it is a
team, has really allowed me to understand
what are those things that I need to think
about and, more importantly, my 10,000
volunteers. What do they need from me
in order for them to learn the knowledge
that has been gifted on behalf
of Mike Tipton and his colleagues
in order that our organisation and
organisations around the country and around
the world can use it to help keep people
safe? And it's critical actually from the
science making it into reality.
Three words: Float to Live
will leave a huge legacy.
So the float technique is something that
has been developed by the University of
Portsmouth and Mike Tipton in cooperation
with ourselves, the RNLI.
The technique is very simple - it's almost
a star shape. Legs out wide, arms
out wide and head back.
That gives you maximum surface area.
The buoyancy that happens to be in your
clothes will help you come to the surface of
the water. Some people will find they'll
have to scale a little bit with their hands
in order to stay afloat.
Some people are naturally more buoyant.
And that position there just helps
you acclimatise to that cold water,
keeps your airway clear of the water
and helps you relax and work out what your
next move is, whether that's to call for
help or whether it's to swim to a safer place.
I would actually consider myself to be quite
The only problem was it was dependent on me
being attached to my surfboard.
I think it was probably the first wave of
the next set I came off
my board. I realised quite quickly that the
leash had broken.
Wave after wave after wave was just
smashing on top of me,
and I just thought, This is it.
About three or four days prior
to going out surfing on my own,
I had asked an RNLI lifeguard,
what's the best thing to do if my leash
breaks? The advice that they'd given about
float on your back relax,
that all came flooding back to me
I mean, in my mind, that was the only way I
was going to survive.
The way I feel about the sea has completely
changed. The key message
is you do have it within
your power to relax and
have some control over that situation with
that float to live information.
Education is a really critical
component feeding into preventative
medicine. So if people know
what's going to happen to them when they go
in the water, they tend to deal with
it better -- we've done studies that prove
that. If they know how to behave and you
teach them how to behave, then survivability
just goes up off the scale.
So we're running a session this afternoon
with St Agnes Surf Lifesaving Club, a group
of their nippers, their younger members are
going to be down here, and we're going to be
showing them the float to live technique and how they do it.
Eventually, these young children, seven
or eight years old as they are now, will be
the 16, 17, 18-year-olds that
we at the RNLI will be recruiting to be
lifeguards that will, in turn, will be
keeping us safe when we visit the beaches.
So my hope for the future around the
campaign and the work in general for water
safety is that we carry on having an impact,
and it's really brought it home to me the
last couple of years that we have made a
difference in real people's lives.
The crucial thing is having the University
of Portsmouth as part of that research that
is the flagstone of everything we're all
doing here in doing drowning prevention.
We all need to work together, and it's that
interoperability, which is really key.
Many lives that we save, not just in the UK,
but around the world.
So the legacy for this research in my eyes
is that it has, we know, helped to save
lives, and I don't think from an academic
point of view, you can really ask for
anything more than that. And the key really
for us is that this research, which is a
lifetime's worth of work for Mike and the
team, has now been applied in a way and at
a scale that is genuinely making a
difference. And so if we can keep doing
that, I think that will be the legacy and
hopefully for many years to come floating to
live will be in the same kind of safety
message bracket as wearing a seatbelt or
something like that that just becomes normal
life and that, for me, will be success and legacy.