Monday, 24 September 2007

Don't believe the hype

Last week, as I was driving home one day, I heard a news report on the radio about a boy who had drowned in a pond in Wigan, which is not too far away from where I live. The boy, Jordon Lyon, drowned in May of this year, but there was an inquest last week which, which is why it was mentioned in the news.

Now I know that, in this day and age, it's hardly surprising when a news reporter sensationalises a story, particularly if it involves a tragedy such as a young boy drowning. But I was, quite frankly, fucking outraged when I heard the reports on this particular story.

It seems that Jordon Lyon and his sister, Bethany, were fishing for tadpoles in a large pond in Wigan when Bethany got into trouble and Jordon jumped into the pond to try to help her. He managed to hold Bethany up out of the water when two anglers who were passing by ran over and were able to fish Bethany out. They couldn't get to Jordon. The police were called, and this is where I get really annoyed, the news report states that the two police community support officers (PCSO's) who arrived "stood by and watched whilst Jordon drowned".

Jordon's stepfather then arrived at the scene with a friend, and both dived in to try to rescue Jordon. A policeman then arrived on the scene, and also jumped in. He managed to find Jordon, but by then the boy was dead. [Sources: BBC News, The Times Online, The Guardian]

As this story broke, the radio show was inundated with outraged people damning the police and asking how could two people just stand by and watch as a boy drowned in a six-feet-deep pond in front of them? And, to be honest, I wondered myself what the hell was going on.

And then I found out a bit more about the story.

First of all, the term "pond" is slightly misleading. It's actually more of a small lake, as you can see from the photo below. The lake is relatively wide and is about six feet deep. The water is dark and murky, and fairly impossible to see through to the bottom.

Aside from this misleading term, the rest of the reports on the matter deliberately left out key facts in order to sensationalise the story. When the two PCSO's arrived on the scene, Jordon had already gone underwater, and could not be seen. This fact has been confirmed by the two anglers who had managed to fish Bethany out of the water. The PCSO's did not stand by idly, twiddling their thumbs. They did what they were trained to do - they radioed for help.

The Greater Manchester Police have defended the PCSO's actions saying they weren't trained to deal with this sort of situation, and that they did exactly the right thing, by radioing for help and waiting. This has lead to further outrage, with people condeming the PCSO's for not diving into the lake, and the police for defending their actions. There have been comments stating that Jordon's stepfather and friend were not trained in water rescue, and yet they still dived in, and that anyone witnessing a child drowning would try everything in their power to save that child, regardless of training.

And of course, these comments have been reported and bandied about by the media, further fuelling this misinformed debate. Now, I am a trained lifeguard. I trained for five years, got all my certificates, and worked for two years as a lifeguard in my local swimming pool. Two of my brothers worked as lifeguards on the beach, which is no Baywatch, let me tell you. If someone starts drowning in a swimming pool, it's scary, but at least you know they're in a confined space. The water is clear, warm and not very deep. I used to pull about four kids an hour out of the water, and, thankfully, have only had to administer mouth-to-mouth once on a little girl who went under and stopped breathing before I could get to her. She was ok in the end, but I'll never forget what it was like seeing her floating about a foot under the water, unconscious, her eyes open and her lips turning blue.

That was in a swimming pool. When someone drowns in open water, be it on a beach, at a lake or in a river, it becomes a hell of a lot more serious. There are so many things to consider - the open water, with currents, which means that if a person goes under, by the time you get to the spot where you saw them go under, there's absolutely no guarantee that they'll still be there. Then there's the cold, dark, murky water which makes it almost impossible to see anything, let alone locate a drowning person who will have sank to the bottom by now.

But the most important thing that we were taught when lifesaving was "Safety First". As in, your own safety. If you see someone drowning, you have to evaluate whether you're going to be able to save that person, and not put yourself in danger. There's no point in attempting to save someone and putting yourself in danger in the process - you'll just end up with two people dead instead of one. That might sound harsh, but that's the reality. If you're walking along a beach and you see someone drowning who's twice the size of you and they're a mile out in the water, then it's more useful for you to call for help than to try to rescue that person. If you swim out to them, and you're already knackered (remembering how cold water tires your muscles so much more than warm water), you're putting both yourself and the drowning person in further danger. You can never underestimate the strength of a panicking person, and it can be physcially exhasting just trying to restrain them and calm them down. You then have to swim a mile back to shore, dragging someone who's twice the size of you and probably still kicking and struggling.

So the lesson that was hammered into us from day one was not to risk your own life to try to save another's.

The fact of this case is that, when the two PCSO's arrived on the scene, they were presented with a cold, murky lake in which there was no sign of the drowning boy. Neither PCSO was trained in how to search for a submerged drowning victim (remember how you learned to pick bricks up from the bottom of the pool? Try doing that in open water... I've done it in the sea, and it's nigh on impossible even with years of training), and so they did what they had been trained for - the radioed for help. It's not clear whether the PCSO's were even able to swim - it's not a requirement for the job - and so they, in my humble opinion, did the best thing they could have in that situation. Even when fully trained, water resuce is a dangerous job, and it certainly should not be attempted by people who don't know what they're doing. True, Jordon's stepfather dived in when he wasn't trained, but that was the natural reaction of a parent when faced with a situation in which their child is in danger. Parents would walk barefoot across broken glass to save their children - that does not mean we should expect others to do the same.

Bizarrely, in March of this year, a firefighter was told that he might be sued for saving a drowning woman from a river in Scotland. The man jumped into the river and feared for his own life, as the freezing water threatened to sweep him away. However, he managed to grab the woman and pull her to safety, only to be told that he had breached safety rules during the rescue, and was incident was being investigated internally by Tayside Fire and Rescue. [Source: The Times Online]

It is terribly sad that a boy died, however, I don't believe that the PCSO's could have saved him, even if they had jumped into the lake. Nobody has yet asked the question why two children were fishing for tadpoles, unaccompanied and unsupervised, in a six-foot-deep lake, but I'm sure that will be the focus of the newspaper and radio reports after the PCSO's get fired.

In the meantime, how about we take something productive out of this like... oh, I don't know... teaching kids about the dangers of water and hwo to swim and perhaps what to do when they get into difficulty? No? Ok... isn't it time for another terrorist threat? Or perhaps a weather disaster? Who hasn't had a tsunami recently? We need some death to sell tomorrow's papers, damnit! What's that... secret nuclear testing in Iraq caused an upset in the weather and that triggered Hurricane Katrina?! Goddamn!!

Dontcha just lurve the media?


Anonymous said...

As a CSO (My Force has dropped the Police from our title)
I am not a super hero, I would not have gone into the lake,
I can’t swim,
the gutter press are having a field day let’s see the Editor of the daily mail dive into the lake and David Blunkett
Can help fish out his body when he’s found it

CSO North East UK

Anonymous said...

I'll tell you what else about this that you haven't read in the media. The call which came to the police sent them to the wrong area, because a couple of lakes are known as the same thing in the area. So the PCSOs were on their way there when they came across the incident. One of them took his bike and cycled up to the side so that he could direct the ambulance down. The other waited for her colleagues to direct them. It had been at least 15 minutes after Jordon disappeared when the PCSOs first arrived.

It's just bollocks, but PCSOs are an easy victim. The vitriol that i've seen about these two kids on various websites is sickening and people should be ashamed of themselves.

I need a bacardi breezer!