Protect people at risk: Water survival guidance

Control Measure Knowledge

This control measure should be read in conjunction with Protect people at risk: Survival guidance

The advice and guidance given to people at risk trapped in or by water will depend on the situation they are in; fire control personnel should use their professional judgment and situational awareness to provide suitable guidance. The situation should be regularly reviewed, and advice amended if necessary.

Stay out of the water

People at risk who are not in the water at the time of call, may be in a place where they are safe to remain until they are rescued. This may include people on high ground who have become surrounded by water. In these situations, they should be advised to stay out of the water and to stay away from unguarded edges and banks, as they may collapse and allow people to fall into the water. The same advice should be given to callers who are not in the water and are sharing water survival guidance with people at risk in the water.

Free themselves

If people have become entangled or trapped in obstructions, such as strainers or siphons, they may be in a stable and relatively safe position to remain until they are rescued. If this is not the case, people should be encouraged to release themselves; this may include removing clothing that has become entangled. If people are not required to or are unable to free themselves, they should try to remain as still as possible and attempt to follow survival guidance.


People who have fallen into water unexpectedly are likely to thrash around in the water; this may be due to a reaction to cold water shock or panic. Cold water shock and panic can also affect people’s breathing, causing them to hyperventilate. Floating on their back will reduce the risk of their face entering water and allow them time to control their breathing.

The following methods can assist people to float:

  • They should keep calm and try not to panic; their instinct will be to swim hard but they should try to float first
  • Laying on their back, extending their arms and legs with their ears in the water and mouth and nose out of the water to keep their airway clear
  • Gently kicking their feet will assist in lifting their legs to the surface; this can be repeated if their legs begin to sink again. It is important the kicking is sufficient to raise their legs but not too forceful that they begin to move
  • Gently moving their arms horizontally in and out in a sculling motion
  • They should float until their breathing is controlled. This could be for 60 – 90 seconds or until they feel calm

Once people have been able to control their breathing, they should locate a buoyancy aid that can be used to assist them to float until they can be rescued. Any floating object can be used as a buoyancy aid, such as a floating tree branch. When providing advice for people to locate a buoyancy aid, consideration should be given to:

  • Their swimming ability
  • The distance to the buoyancy aid
  • The speed of the water

A call may be received reporting a person in the water or where a person in the water is unable to reach a buoyancy aid safely. A person on solid land may be able to provide the person in the water with an object to use as a buoyancy aid.

Lifebelts and other lifesaving equipment may be located near to the water; however, if these are unavailable, any object that will float can be used. The object should be thrown as near to the person in the water as possible, without hitting them and causing any injury.

Depending on the water conditions and people’s ability to float, if there are no objects available to be used as a buoyancy aid, they may benefit from continuing to float on their back.

Self-rescue for rip currents

The Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) and Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA) provide the following advice to people who find themselves caught in a rip current, further information can be found at Rip Currents – Water Safety Advice And Drowning Prevention (

  • Stay calm and do not panic
  • If the person can stand, they should wade; and not try and swim
  • If the person has an inflatable or board, they should keep hold of it to them float
  • Raise their hand and shout loudly for help
  • Do not try to swim directly against the rip current or they would get exhausted
  • Swim parallel to the beach until free of the rip current and then head for shore
  • If the person cannot swim, they should float by leaning back in the water and extending their arms and legs

Safety advice for tidal cut offs

The RNLI and MCA provide the following advice for people who have been cut off by the tide:

  • Where appropriate, move away from the water where it is safe to do so
  • Walk further up the beach or ledge, providing they do not put themselves in any further danger, for example climbing up a loose cliff face

Stay warm

If people have been able to exit the water, it is important medical advice is followed to reduce the risk of hypothermia. The effects of hypothermia can be prevented or managed by taking the following actions:

  • Move people indoors or somewhere sheltered as quickly as possible
  • Remove any wet clothing and replace with dry clothes if possible
  • If they cannot be moved indoors, protect the casualty from the ground by providing some insulation for them to lie on
  • Wrap them in a blanket, sleeping bag, dry towel or similar, making sure their head is covered
  • Give them a warm non-alcoholic drink and some high energy food
  • Do not apply direct heat such as a hot water bottle to warm them up as this may cause damage to the skin or may cause an irregular heartbeat
  • Do not massage or rub the person, as vigorous or jarring movements may trigger cardiac arrest

During all survival guidance calls it is important to maintain contact with the people at risk where possible; however, if a person is potentially suffering from hypothermia this may be vital. People suffering from hypothermia may feel tired and lose consciousness; by keeping them talking it may assist in keeping them awake until emergency resources arrive.

Strategic Actions

Tactical Actions