How can York make its rivers safer and prevent more deaths?

20 Sep 2014 @ 12.04 pm
| News
Police search the River Ouse in a still from one of the new videos

After a series of river tragedies, something had to be done. And today York’s police and council leaders came together to outline a safer rivers strategy.

Representing the city’s multi-partner River Safety Group, they launched three searingly emotional videos by the loved ones of three young people who died in the Ouse and Foss this year.

And a series of practical measures were announced by Julia Mulligan, North Yorkshire police and crime commissioner, Cllr Tracey Simpson-Laing, York council’s cabinet member for homes and safer communities, and police commander Supt Phil Cain.

Jackie Roberts, the mother of Megan, who died in January, and Steve Pearson, father of Tyler who died in April, were present to endorse the plans to stop more needless river deaths.

The scale of the problem

It was revealed that there have been 24 deaths in York’s rivers in the last 15 years.

Supt Cain said three main reasons were suicide, accident and alcohol.

The vast majority of the deaths occurred between September and March. Supt Cain said that although the river looked “beautiful, calm and still” on the surface there are strong undercurrents in each river, and particularly the River Ouse.

Somebody affected by alcohol who entered the river would have no more than four minutes before their body went into shock and they were unable to swim “irrespective of how strong a swimmer they are”.

Long term, the number of river deaths was not increasing: “Its not about an increasing number of deaths. Unfortunately we had a few very tragic incidents in a very short space of time.”

The approach to making our rivers safety can be split into three main areas.

1. Physical safety improvements

Cllr Simpson-Laing said the city had commissioned a safety report by RoSPA, the Royal Society For the Prevention Of Accidents.

It was presented to the council on September 5 and will be published in October. The report made a series of recommendations including:

  • replacing the 35 lifebelts on the Ouse and the 14 on the Foss with new ones complete with floating lines, plus information on how to sound the alarm – by the end of November
  • upgrading chain fencing and river edge protection along the Ouse at Wellington Row, the Blue Bridge area and Queens Staith – by the end of December
  • new fencing along Navigation Road on the Foss – by late November
  • update and replace grab rails and chains, especially between Lendal and Ouse Bridges – to be completed by spring 2015, weather permitting.

She said the council is in discussions with the emergency services about the possibility of emergency lighting along the river around and under Ouse Bridge.

The report also considers the value of a safety boat on the Ouse. “Julia and myself, along with the other emergency services, are looking at these recommendations.

“Discussions have taken place which recognise that York Fire and Rescue Service has a York designated boat and they have been doing some excellent work.”

2. Education and campaigns

RoSPA recommends a “water safety campaign, training on raising the alarm and education on general awareness“.

From this term York schools will include, as part of the curriculum, water safety and aquatic skills.

Cllr Simpson-Laing also highlighted the Plan Safe, Drink Safe, Home Safe campaign by York St John University students union and others in the River Safety Group “to give people clear, practical advice on planning a great, safe night out and a safe journey home”.

Partners have also advised the University of York on its NightSafe service, where trained volunteers patrol the city centre and riverside areas on student club nights.

Left to right: Cllr Tracey Simpson-Laing, police and crime commissioner Julia Mulligan and Supt Phil Cain at the river safety press conference

On October 2, the Royal Lifesaving Society will launch its Don’t Drink And Drown campaign at the University Of York freshers’ week.

“Additional training will be also be given to security staff, Street Angels and others working or volunteering near the river banks, in how to deploy life belts, to ask for Fire and Rescue when dialling 999 and how to raise alarm,” said Cllr Simpson-Laing.

Part of the education campaign are the emotional videos made by loved ones of river victims.

“We want everybody to see them – as many people as possible,” said Julia Mulligan.

She hopes they will act as a memory jogger for people to remind them to take care when near the rivers.

3. Curb excessive drinking

All three members of the group acknowledged that alcohol has played a part in some of the river deaths.

The act of pre-loading – or drinking before going out to bars – was mentioned as an additional worry, although they were at pains to point out this was not an activity limited to young people or students.

The relative cheapness of the alcohol sold at off licences was only one reason for this, Supt Cain said. Another was to give people confidence, or “Dutch courage”.

He said police had updated their licensing “cumulative impact zone” to include off-licences, such as the proliferation of small supermarkets in the city centre. This aims to restrict the number of places selling alcohol in areas of disorder.

Supt Cain said there was a need to provide a wider range of activities in the evenings in York “that are as safe as they possibly can be in an already safe city”.

Julia Mulligan suggested one practical approach would be to breathalyze people going into to bars and clubs. More training would be given to night time workers in spotting vulnerable people and helping them stay safe.

She stressed York is largely a safe city.

“We did a comparison with other areas and it was quite clear that people saw York as one of the safest places to come and have a night out.”

The Rivers Safety Group would be part of a co-ordinated approach to the problems caused by excessive drinking and feed into the alcohol summit later this year announced by council leader James Alexander.

Cllr Simpson-Laing said the full cost of implementing this strategy had not been finalised but the money would be found out of the council’s capital budget.