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British police under orders not to save drowning victims

Furor grows over failure to save drowning 10-year-old
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By Daniel Foggo and Jack Grimston

WIGAN, Lancashire — The emergency services are being told not to attempt to save drowning people because of health and safety restrictions, it has emerged.

Amid a growing row over the failure of two police support officers to try to save a boy from drowning, both the police and the fire service disclosed this weekend that their frontline staff are instructed not to enter the water in case they put themselves in danger.

Officers are no longer required to be trained in swimming or lifesaving. One police force closed its training pool five years ago for health and safety reasons after an accident and it has not reopened.

An inquest last week heard how two police community support officers (PCSOs) had stood by while a 10-year-old boy drowned in a pond in Wigan. Senior officers with the Greater Manchester force, which employed them, said they acted “correctly”.

The boy, Jordon Lyon, died despite a fully qualified police officer subsequently plunging into the water in an attempt to rescue him. His force made it clear this weekend that the officer was acting on his own volition and contrary to advice.

The case has ignited a debate over whether PCSOs, who receive only a few weeks’ training and do not have full police powers, should be scrapped.

Ann Widdecombe, Conservative MP for Maidstone and the Weald and former Home Office minister, said: “In the last decade we really have got so bogged down in the compensation culture and procedures and fear of being sued that we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture completely.

“It’s barmy, we’ve lost sight of what the emergency services are for. They are there to help people. I am quite emotionally angry about this.

“Damn being a PCSO, what about being a human being? For the senior officer to say this was appropriate is unbelievable.”

Yesterday, David Blunkett, who introduced PCSOs as home secretary, said he would have hoped that they would have let basic human concern for others override instructions not to enter the water. “What was appropriate in these circumstances would be appropriate for PCSOs as human beings,” he said.

However, Greater Manchester police indicated that the PCSOs, a man and a woman, might not even have known how to swim. PCSOs are not required to know how to swim when they join any force and Manchester police said it did not train them to do so.

“They are not trained to swim and they don’t need to be able to swim to be a PCSO in Manchester,” said a spokeswoman, who refused to confirm whether the two officers could swim.

The situation with fully trained police officers is similar. The spokeswoman said: “The officers are advised not to go into the water. They are not trained in water rescue.”

Officers like Sergeant Craig Lippitt, who attempted to rescue Jordon by stripping off and diving in of his own volition, were acting against instructions, although they would not be disciplined for rescuing someone, the spokeswoman said.

Firefighters who attempt the same are not necessarily so fortunate. In March a 42-year-old firefighter, Tam Brown, saved a woman in the River Tay. He was later informed he could face disciplinary action.

Roddy Robertson, executive council member of the Scottish Fire Brigades Union, said most firefighters had absolutely no training in rescuing drowning people. “We don’t think the responsibility lies with us, we aren’t trained and we aren’t funded. We think it lies with the police but we don’t know if they are funded for it,” he said.

If a force decides to train its officers in water rescue, there are three gradings of competence. Level one involves not entering the water but throwing a line to the victim from dry land; level two entails wading out attached to a harness; and level three deals with rescues in fast running water.

“Less than 10% of staff in Scotland are trained to level one or above,” said Robertson.

Training is thought to be equally patchy in England. Duncan Milligan, spokesman for the Fire Brigades Union, said: “It varies from fire authority to fire authority whether they have people trained to carry out water rescues.”

Firefighters untrained in water rescue would almost certainly attempt to help despite the official advice because of their innate desire to save people, he said. “It is what rescuers call the moral dilemma, in other words when life is threatened to a member of the public, do they try and effect a rescue whether or not they have the training and equipment to carry it out, thereby risking their own lives?”

Lippitt evidently had no problem wrestling with the “moral dilemma”. By the time he arrived at the pond where Jordon had got into trouble while trying to rescue his eight-year-old stepsister Bethany, the boy was submerged. The two PCSOs had arrived some time earlier but not attempted any kind of rescue.

Anthony Ganderton, Jordon’s stepfather, who also dived in after arriving at the scene, said: “The proper police officer did a brilliant job when he arrived. He didn’t hesitate, he was straight in. But the other two were there before him. Why didn’t they do something? It might have made the difference for Jordon.”

Jordon had been playing at the pond, a flooded mine shaft, with Bethany and his younger brothers. Two fishermen, John Collinson and Bert Wright, noticed that Bethany and Jordon were in the water, with the girl being held up by her brother, who was already submerged.

Wright went in up to his chest and tried to reach Bethany with his rod. When it broke he managed to grab the girl and pull her to safety, despite going under the water himself at one point.

They alerted the emergency services, but the first arrivals were the two bike-riding PCSOS who “just stood there”, according to Collinson, before Lippitt arrived.

The Manchester force said Jordon would have been beyond help by the time the PCSOs arrived, since he had been submerged for 10 or 15 minutes.

Assistant Chief Constable Dave Thompson said: “The two PCSOs involved did not stand by and watch Jordon die. They acted correctly and I fully support the actions they took.

“By the time they arrived, Jordan had disappeared under the water. He had been under the water for some time and there was no indication as to where he was in the lake.”

According to the rulebook, Thompson is correct. Under guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), constables, let alone PCSOs, are advised not even to enter the water if they cannot see the person who is in trouble.

“You may end up with another serious situation and another person drowning,” said an Acpo spokesman.

Rescuing people drowning is undoubtedly dangerous. In 1999 Paul Metcalfe, a Bury firefighter, died after trying to retrieve a drowning teenager from a pond. Untrained in water rescues and ill-equipped, he went into the water with a line but succumbed to hypothermia. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) later decided to prosecute the Manchester fire authority.

But while Manchester fire and rescue services are now better equipped at water rescuing than some other brigades, the general reaction across the country appears to have been to tell firefighters to take no chances, and that attitude has spread to the police.

In July this year, the Metropolitan police were fined £75,000 and ordered to pay £50,000 in costs after pleading guilty to breaching health and safety laws after two 14-year-old boys, Gameli Akuklu and William Kadama, died at a children’s event in 2002 in the swimming pool at the force’s training college in Hendon, north London.

Brian Paddick, who retired from the Met in May as a deputy assistant commissioner, said: “At that time all recruits were trained to swim and, when they could, they were trained in lifesaving.

“As a result of this incident, the then commissioner, John Stevens, ordered the pool to be filled in. Since then, officers have not been trained in swimming or lifesaving.”

Paddick, now running as the Liberal Democrat candidate for London mayor, said the approach of the police nationally to health and safety had also been shaken by the death of Kulwant Sidhu, an officer who fell to his death while chasing a suspect across a roof.

The HSE brought a prosecution which, although it failed, cost £3m and saw Stevens and his predecessor, Lord Condon, brought before the Old Bailey.

“They were prosecuted because they had not instructed officers not to risk their lives operating at height,” said Paddick. “That now extends to forces telling police community support officers not to get involved in emergencies or in violent situations. They are told to withdraw and call the police.”

Paddick said that officers in the Met were supposed to call for back-up from the fire brigade or a lifeboat if they encountered someone drowning, but he said most had the “self-confidence” to ignore the rules if a life was in danger.”

He added: “Community support officers do not have that self-confidence, and standing on the shore watching is just one example of that.”

© Copyright 2007 Times Newspapers Ltd.