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The NSRI was recently invited to give a presentation on its ground-breaking Pink Rescue Buoy initiative at an international conference in Adelaide. We chatted to attendees Andrew Ingram and Bradley Seaton-Smith to get the lowdown.

The NSRI’s pioneering Pink Rescue Buoy (PRB) initiative was born out of the tragic drowning of a 41-year-old father who swam into a rip current to try and rescue his 10-year-old daughter.

“I challenge any father to say that he would not have done the same thing,” said Andrew Ingram, NSRI Drowning Prevention Manager, in his recent presentation at the 14th World Conference on Injury Prevention and Safety Promotion in Adelaide. “As happens in so many of these bystander rescues, the original victim survived and the rescuer drowned. We now have enough evidence to show that if an untrained rescuer who is a relatively good swimmer takes flotation into the water to attempt a rescue, both the victim and the rescuer survive.”

It was this emotive opening that lay the foundation for Andrew – along with his co-presenter, NSRI Marketing Manager Bradley Seaton-Smith – to present the PRB programme, an initiative that has saved many lives in South Africa and will, hopefully, do so on a global scale if adopted by other countries.

Initiated in 2017, to date 1500 highly visible, bright pink rescue buoys have been strategically placed on signs at selected inland rivers, dams and beaches across the country. The buoys act as a reminder to take care if there are no lifeguards on duty, and that in the event of someone getting into difficulty in the water, they can be thrown or swum out as emergency flotation until help arrives.

“At inception, PRB rescues were low,” says Bradley. “This was due to the limited number of buoys deployed.” In 2018, only 29 PRB rescues were recorded for the entire year, whereas, in March 2022, 26 rescues were recorded for that month alone. This speaks to how the programme has matured.

One of the key elements of maturity of the programme, says Bradley, is the improvement of the signage. “We've changed the iconography of the first PRB signs to acknowledge that most rescues are in fact in-water rescues, and our advice has changed from ‘do not go into the water, rather throw the PRB to the person in difficulty’, to ‘if you decide to go into the water, call for help and take this PRB with you’.”

Due to South Africa having 11 official languages, PRB signage has also evolved to reflect the most commonly spoken language for the area where that buoy is deployed.

Waking up the world to the value of PRBs

Part of the reason this type of drowning prevention measure has not caught on internationally is that there is a fear that if you make rescue equipment such as PRBs available to the public, untrained people will try to use them and get themselves in trouble, says Bradley. “But the world is starting to realise that bystander rescue equipment is safe and necessary to save lives. Our research has shown that if untrained people try to attempt a rescue (and they often do) without floatation, they have a high chance of drowning along with the original casualty. The NSRI is clearly leading the world in this thinking and implementation.”

Indeed, the feedback the team received at the Conference, which took place over the week of 27 to 30 November, was enormously encouraging. “We were thrilled with the interest in our presentation,” says Andrew. “What was especially valuable was chatting with people after the presentation about how our PRBs are used, how we market them, and so on. We had great chats with senior people from Auckland Drowning Prevention (they even referenced PRBs in their own presentation), as well as from South Australia Surf Lifesaving.

“With these two nations buying into public rescue equipment, it will not be long before International Lifesaving follows suit. Just last week I was contacted by a researcher from Texas who found our presentation online and wants to push for a Public Rescue Equipment Standard in his state. It is these unexpected contacts that allow us to have a huge impact and hopefully get those involved in drowning prevention around the world to understand how and why the PRBs work – and that they can save lives in their own country as well.

“We believe that there should be a world standard, and that we have gone a long way to setting that standard with our PRBs. Now we need to nurture the relationships we’ve established, keep pushing for one standard globally … and to turn the world’s beaches PINK!”

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