Sun, sea and safety first

Lifeguard training at Roker, Sunderland. The lifeguard team.
Lifeguard training at Roker, Sunderland. The lifeguard team.
Have your say

Patrolling the beaches of Sunderland isn’t all sun and glamour like Baywatch, it’s a serious business.

 Cara Houchen found out just how vital lifeguards are when it comes to keeping seaside visitors safe.

WHEN I arrived at Roker beach the rain was coming down so hard I could barely make out the horizon, and the huge waves were not appealing.

I had been expecting to take part in the RNLI Lifeguards’ training after volunteering myself as a casualty trapped out at sea.

But due to the severe weather conditions, they called this exercise off and I was allowed to remain on dry land.

Instead, I was given an insight into the different scenarios they must learn to deal with in order to keep on top of their game.

Gavin Hughes, Lifeguard Supervisor, was on hand to explain what the training would involve, and as I followed him to the first acting casualty he said: “We have everything to simulate different injuries, and we can really make it come to life.

“It’s great for the guys who are training to actually see what they may have to deal with – it’s a great visual.”

As I peered over his shoulder I could see a willing volunteer, 22-year-old Adam Green, with what looked like a missing hand due to an accident with a jet ski and trailer.

“The props and the special effects make-up aids with training massively,” said Gavin. “It’s a really effective way to show them what to do and how to do it.

“The first aid training they receive takes them to just one level below a paramedic so they are qualified to diagnose, treat and hand over to the paramedics when they arrive on the scene.

“We’ve never had an injury on the beach like the one you can see here, but it could happen.”

When Adam, from Washington, had been treated he told me he loved his job. He said: “I’ve been doing it for five years now. It’s great. You get to work down on the beach every day, and no day is ever the same.

“Last year we had a kid who took a chunk out of his leg and you could see the bone, but I had done the training and I knew what I was doing.”

Lifeguard recruitment begins in January and they must have a Surf Life Saving Great Britain (SLSGB) beach lifeguard award or a Royal Life Saving Society UK (RLSS) National Beach Lifeguard qualification to apply for a position.

Training then starts before the beginning of the season, which is in May, and runs through until September.

Simon Bristow, also a RNLI Lifeguard Superviser, has been a lifeguard for the past 20 years. The 35-year-old, from Chester Road, is now a trainer and said: “I’m the only full-time member of staff here, and my favourite part is teaching kids about water safety.

“I set up a local club in Sunderland – Sunderland Life Saving Club, so anyone who wanted to apply to be an RNLI lifeguard could come here first and get the qualifications they need.

“Once they apply they have to go through a number of tests including fitness, competency and communication.

“Communication skills are essential, 90 per cent of a lifeguard’s job is to prevent injuries from happening by talking to the general public and advising them.”

He added: “Lifeguards are there to give advice and keep people safe, but they are taken for granted quite a bit.”

The lifeguards have to complete different first aid scenarios every two weeks to make sure they are up to speed, and as I watched them in action it was obvious they knew what they were doing.

There are 10 lifeguards on duty every day, and they have extra in reserve if they need them. They are always on the beach at 10am, and they keep a watchful eye over the public until 6pm.

Simon said: “The whole Baywatch image is not true, we take it very seriously. Saving lives at sea and on the beach is what we do.

“We want the public to listen and follow our advice. We’re not the fun police, we don’t want them to stop enjoying themselves, we just want them to be safe.

“It costs a lot of money to mobilise all the different organisations to come out and rescue them, and I don’t think people realise.”

The RNLI is a charity, and although the lifeboats are manned by volunteers, the lifeguards are paid by the city council and trained by the RNLI.

Gavin said: “It’s a popular profession, mostly with students who want to do it during the summer. Some of them work for us then go travelling in the winter until the new season starts again, or they get a lifeguarding job in Australia until it’s time to come back here.

“We usually expect to get five or six seasons out of lifeguards before they move on. The training they receive with the RNLI sets them up to go into careers as paramedics, emergency services or the forces – all of those organisations really like that they have worked as a lifeguard.”

While I watched the lifeguards move between casualties (both victims did a good job of acting injured, and I couldn’t get over how realistic the make-up was) I asked Simon and Gavin what they have to deal with most often.

“Tombstoning” said Simon. “Our biggest problem is tombstoning. We often get groups jumping off the steps at Roker Pier and the Cat and Dog steps.

“They don’t realise that the depth changes all the time, and there are so many underwater obstacles.

“But it’s still popular despite people receiving permanent injuries and even dying.”

He added: “All we can do is warn them, but we can’t stop them.”

Gavin offered to take me up to the operations tower, opposite the Roker hotel, and once I was at this vantage point I realised how vast the beaches are.

I asked the 23-year-old if it is difficult to keep an eye on everyone, especially when the beaches are full.

He said: “We’re always watching, but nine times out of 10, it’s the quiet days which surprise us. People come down and they don’t realise what the weather is doing to the sea, and even when we advise them against going in, they do it anyway.

“The public don’t realise how much we watch them. There is a lady who swims all the time, right out past Roker pier and along the line of the buoys. We have lifeguards stationed at intervals along Roker and Seaburn and they follow her swim before passing it on to the next lifeguard in line.

“I doubt she realises all that effort goes into making sure she is OK. That’s why it would make our lives easier if people came and told us what they were going to do before they did it, so we could advise them and be aware that they knew what they were doing.”

Despite the good work they do, I was surprised to hear that they deal with abuse every day from members of the public who simply don’t want their advice.

Gavin said: “They deal with violence and abuse quite regularly, but they take that and respond in a professional manner. It’s quite something what they deal with, and it takes a special type of person to do this job.

He added: “People don’t realise the dangers that they are in. It’s only when it happens that they become aware of it. Which is why we try to advise them before they do it.

“It takes a lot of courage sometimes to advise people. We’re not policemen, people don’t have to listen to us, but we know what we’re talking about so it would be great if they listened.”

Once the team had finished their morning training it was time to set up the beach for another day. Despite the weather, they still have to put out red and yellow flags for swimmers and the markers for water sports.

Gavin, from Durham, explained that each lifeguard has to let the tower know via a radio that they are at their post, and then the day begins.

Everything is coordinated from here, and it’s the first point of contact for every lifeguard when an incident occurs. Whoever is in the tower then lets the appropriate emergency services know what the situation is, and they respond accordingly.

“Being a lifeguard is fantastic,” said Gavin, “It’s the sort of job where you get life experience that you would not get in another job.

“Lifeguards inadvertently change people’s lives – we’ve had a number of injuries to deal with over the past few years, and if we had not been here we would have been looking at tragedies up and down the coast.

“It’s a lot of pressure to put on a young person, some of them are only 18-years-old, and they have to do their job properly as it’s a person’s life in their hands.

“It’s a big responsibility, and that’s why we do this training with them, which stands them in good stead for the future.”

l For more information on the RNLI and its Lifeguards, visit