Vulnerability Series 4: Water safety in Towns and Cities at night

27 Apr 2018

Most cities and towns have a body of water somewhere close to the night time economy whether that is a sea, river, lake or canal. After several high profile deaths, cities have increasingly been asking us how they can make their water areas safer at night, so we have researched what cities around the world are doing and decided to share that best practise here.

The National Fire Chiefs Council states that “drowning is one of the UK’s leading causes of accidental death. Each year more than 300 people drown after tripping, falling or just by underestimating the risks associated with being near water. Many more people are left with life-changing injuries in water-related incidents” At night these risks heighten with the addition of intoxicants, darkness, cold and the often isolated nature of large bodies of water.  The National Fire Chiefs Council states that 89% of men who died after going missing on a night out were found dead in water.

According to Water Safety New South Wales Last summer, 20 percent of fatal drownings involved drugs or alcohol. All these deaths occurred at inland waterways and all were male.

It appears that the most vulnerable group is males. So how do we protect men from going near water?

  1. Gating or fencing off entry points: Many cities have effectively used electronic gating systems. The gates automatically shut at a certain time preventing people going near the body of water. These do need to be high and carefully designed to prevent people stepping over or attempting to climb over them. These are easy to use for entry paths to canals or for parks where there are lakes, mostly acting as a deterrent making the water harder to reach. If you have a small lake or small area of the canal you could also use fencing to keep people away. This is not so easy if you have a few miles of towpaths, but you could look at main entry points and block those off.
  2. Movement activated cameras and talking cameras: I’ve seen a few cities adopt innovative technology such as a motion-activated camera, if there is movement then the camera activates, and CCTV can monitor the activity in the area and if someone falls or jumps in the emergency services can be called. In a few cities, they have added to this by adding in a two-way speaking camera. This can be used by CCTV operators to check on the welfare of the individual. There is a cost associated with buying and maintaining these but it’s not prohibitive. They should be placed next to known entry points and points of vulnerability, which may need some assessment
  3. Be Water Aware, Be Water Safe Not Sorry, Don’t Drink and Drown, Respect the Water, Why Let Good Times Go Bad, Look Out For Your Mates, Don’t Take Drugs and Drink and Swim and other media campaigns. These tend to be high profile campaigns mainly on the TV, radio and written press, most are aimed at the general population. Whereas we know that it’s mostly men who are affected by night time economy drownings. My recommendation would be that media campaigns should be more targeted at men, at groups of men, and partners of men. We know that men respond best to hard hitting campaigns rather than softer messaging. New Zealand’s Swim Reaper is a particular favourite of mine, it combines comedy with a hard-hitting message that is appropriate for all water types. So graphic imaging and messaging is most likely to hit home. There is a reduction in 18 to 30’s using traditional media forms so messaging on TV, radio and press is somewhat a waste of time if you want to reach this group. Instead you need to be thinking of messaging on platforms like YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, via sports clubs, in sports clubs. Or using technology such as Drop Messages and Wave. Messages would need to be consistent and be continually given before a night out, on route to a night out (trains, trams, taxis, buses), during a night out (in licensed premises toilets, on bill boards, or via app advertising) and at entry points to areas containing bodies of water.
  4. Placement of flotation devices, grab line and throw ropes: This last one may seem simple; however, we have visited several cities that didn’t have flotation devices regularly or adequately spaced around water, or haven’t maintained the existing ones. An alternative to flotation ropes could be throw ropes in locations along the water front. Another idea is stringing ropes in the water along the water side, so if someone falls in they are not too far away from a grab line, so they can get themselves out of the water. Training of bars, nightclubs, volunteers (Street Pastors, Street Angels, etc) and door staff on what to do if they see someone enter water, together with giving them throw ropes, can all help as part of a wider strategy.
  5. Volunteer patrols. The County of Kent in the UK have a variety of volunteer patrols. The excellent Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team patrol a known suicide hot spot 24 hours a day. They also use Search and Rescue volunteers. Other cities use Street Pastors and police special constables to patrol the river banks and beaches over peak periods such as Christmas, summer and bank holidays. The volunteers patrol hot spots and talk to individuals that they meet, steering them away from harm. Having more people at isolated spots prevents people entering the water. I would recommend that this method is used in conjunction with a wider strategy.
  6. Use of high profile stunts. Coming back to New Zealand’s Swim Reaper he’s been used a variety of comedy stunts around several types of water from floating on inflatables, to slowly drowning carrying a beer can to walks on secluded beaches. The stunts seem particularly aimed at men and boasts of 114k followers on social media. I would love to see him go global. Stunts capture people’s imagination, social media shares and reach. Therefore, think about how you can use stunts or other forms of guerrilla marketing to creatively raise awareness.
  7. Use of glow-in-the-dark paint: Glow-in-the-dark paint can be used on tow paths, around the edges of water, to highlight the entry point of the water. You could also use glow-in-the-dark messages at entry points to the water area saying things like “Turn Back, Danger, Don’t Pass This Point”. This is particularly useful to prevent people from slipping into canals, lakes and rivers where often entry points are level, or a few metres’ drop from the edge.
  8. Harm reduction messaging: Over half of those who die or enter water at night never even planned to enter the water. Therefore, messaging on what to do if you find yourself in water is key. This should be given before a night out and using the same methods as listed above. Helpful messaging includes “Fight your Instinct, Not the Water”. This encourages you to float to increase your chances of survival if you find yourself unexpectedly in the water. Messages should also be communicated to remind people that if they see someone else in trouble in the water they should call 999 or 112 and ask for the Coastguard.
    These are just the top 8 ideas that we found online from around the world. Please feel free to get in touch and let us know of any others that you think we should include.

    If you would like some support in improving safety around water in your area, please get in touch with us on

Written by the Night Time Economy Team ©2018 | Share this article link
Category: Night Time Safety
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