Moving Water (Rescue Arrangements)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:00 pm on 6th June 2007.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 5:00 pm, 6th June 2007

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-81, in the name of Roseanna Cunningham, on rescue from moving water. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes with concern the rising number of incidents involving persons trapped in moving water, including incidents in the River Tay at Perth on 23 July and 21 September 2006 and 6 March 2007, two of which resulted in deaths; further notes that there is no clear duty imposed on fire and rescue services to rescue from moving water, resulting in inconsistent practice across Scotland and the threat of disciplinary action against officers who carry out rescues outwith their operational remit, and considers that this is a situation which requires urgent review.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party 5:02 pm, 6th June 2007

Perhaps rescue from broken podiums might be more appropriate.

I make it clear from the outset that the phrase "persons trapped in moving water" is the terminology that fire and rescue services use. It distinguishes the incidents that I am discussing from those that take place during flooding. Sustaining the differentiation might not always be possible—after all, flood waters can become moving waters very quickly—but for funding and training, the distinction is important.

I will take a few minutes to outline how I became involved in the issue. On 16 January, I had a meeting in my constituency with members of the Motion family about the death of Graham Motion on 23 July 2006 in the River Tay at Perth. On that day, the first representative of the emergency services to arrive at the scene after the 999 call was placed was a single police officer who could not help. The second to arrive was the Scottish Ambulance Service. By the time that Tayside Fire and Rescue arrived, it was too late, even for properly trained staff, which I understand those who were present were not.

Following the incident, the family spoke to police officers and firefighters and learned that the emergency services have little training to deal with such occurrences, which is why they decided to come to me. Some members of Graham Motion's family are here this evening—at least, they were supposed to be here. They have begun a water safety campaign—Safe-Tay—and I commend their courage in trying to make sense of Graham's death by focusing on what can be changed for the better.

As a result of the family's discussions, I lodged written questions to try to understand the extent of the problem. Subsequently, I wrote directly to police and fire services throughout Scotland to see whether their approach is consistent. Most of the responses arrived in mid to late March and, for obvious reasons, I have not had as much time as I might have wished to reply to specific points, but I still intend to do so.

It has been clear from the outset that provision of the service varies considerably throughout Scotland. Obviously, my first port of call was Tayside Fire and Rescue and Tayside Police. Tayside Police helped by providing me with information about incidents in which it was involved. However, it advised me that it is often contacted a considerable time after an incident takes place. It has throw-lines, a dinghy based in Perth and people who are trained to use the craft, and three officers who are trained in swift-water rescue. It also calls on the fire service.

Tayside Fire and Rescue is clear that it has no statutory duty relating to rescues from moving water—as opposed to flood rescues, which are covered under article 5 of the Fire (Additional Function) (Scotland) Order 2005. Curiously, that view is not repeated in the letter that I received from Strathclyde Fire and Rescue; neither is there any mention of police responsibility in that letter. Instead, I am advised of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue's attendance at 251 incidents in the past five years. It responds to water rescue incidents within the force boundaries, although it is a declared resource only from the Erskine bridge to the tidal weir.

Lothian and Borders Police also mentions having throw-lines and nine trained officers. In contrast, Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service writes of

"teams specifically trained and strategically located to carry out specialised water rescue" in Edinburgh, Bathgate and Galashiels, and identifies sums of money that are allocated to water rescue training from the general training budget.

Grampian Fire and Rescue Service emphasises that it has no statutory duty to undertake such rescues—as opposed to those that arise during flooding incidents—and that it has no plans to take on the primary role in responding. Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue Service has three trained officers but no response team. Northern Constabulary provides no specific training and would have to rely on the coastguard, although the coastguard is not always the appropriate service. Dumfries and Galloway Fire and Rescue Service has no trained staff, and neither does Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary—instead, it is Nith Inshore Rescue that responds. Fife Constabulary has no officer trained to deal with moving water incidents and would call on the fire service or the coastguard. Fife Fire and Rescue has two such officers but no operational capability.

The minister may be feeling slightly battered by all that information, but I hope that he understands the point that I am making. The decisions about who responds, who is trained and how much training is required vary considerably from area to area. No force seems to have specific budget headings for the kind of water rescue training that is being debated. I believe that the time is right for the situation to be reviewed.

In Perth, there has been an increase in the use of the bridge over the Tay for suicide attempts as well as for what might be called recreational dooking—as dangerous as it is, there has been an increase in such activity. The number of incidents is increasing, and the ability to assess the situation throughout Scotland is impaired by the lack of agreement on the basis on which such incidents should be recorded and the issue of who should record them. In some cases, the services were unable to tell me how many incidents there had been in the past five years.

Tayside Fire and Rescue officers have had it made clear to them in writing that they are not to go into the water. In the incident on 6 March, that is what Tam Brown did. He is the fire officer to whom the minister referred in responding to my parliamentary question last week. Tam Brown was untrained and going against his instructions. In doing so—in working outside his operational remit—he was laying himself open to disciplinary action, even if none transpired. But he saved a life.

It is not right that we expect such a rescue to take place when officers of whatever emergency service is involved do not have the training to effect a proper rescue. Clarity is required. If, as seems to be the case, there is no statutory duty on any force to conduct the rescue, as opposed to co-ordinate it, which is a different matter, it is left entirely to the chief constable or the chief fire officer to assume the responsibility—or not. People in different parts of the country get different responses because of different levels of training and funding.

In this debate, I am looking to the minister for a recognition of the confusion and lack of clarity that exists and an agreement that the situation needs to be reviewed so that there is a clearer steer as to where the true responsibility lies, because such clarity simply does not exist at present.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative 5:09 pm, 6th June 2007

I congratulate Roseanna Cunningham on securing the debate and commend her diligence in seeking answers to the questions that, as yet, remain unanswered. I extend to you, Presiding Officer, the courtesy of apologising for the fact that I have to leave the chamber shortly before 6 o'clock because of a school engagement that was fixed before I was notified of the debate.

Ms Cunningham is quite right to say that the issue of water safety has, sadly, been at the forefront of our thoughts recently with the tragic loss of life on the Tay. I extend my condolences to the families involved.

Not surprisingly, the issue has caused much concern among local fire officers for the very reasons that Ms Cunningham has outlined. It is principally on those grounds that I am happy to support her motion.

Scotland has more than 50,000km of moving water, so it is unsatisfactory that we do not have a coherent water safety strategy under which there is a statutory duty to rescue people who become trapped in moving water. The Fire (Additional Function) (Scotland) Order 2005 places a statutory duty on fire and rescue authorities to make provision for

"rescuing people trapped, or likely to become trapped, by water ... in the event of serious flooding" in their areas. However, it is unclear whether the provision covers direct responsibility for carrying out rescues from moving water when no authority in Scotland has a statutory duty to do so. In Norway, for example, the police have a core responsibility for responding to such emergencies, with additional headquarters in each of its 19 counties so that such incidents can be managed directly.

In the past, our fire and rescue services have demonstrated their ability to deal with many difficult and challenging incidents. I pay specific tribute to their professionalism during the recent flooding in the Milnathort area of Kinross-shire. That professionalism should not be compromised by a lack of clarity in the laws of the land.

Naturally, firefighters have voiced concerns about the need for dedicated water rescue equipment, and they believe that further training is necessary to ensure that such rescues can be carried out.

I take the opportunity to highlight another arm of our rescue services that is often overlooked and its specialist training and rescue service potential. I refer to the Scottish mountain rescue teams, which could play a vital role in a Scottish water rescue strategy. Made up of volunteers who are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, many mountain rescue teams are more used to carrying out rescues from rivers and dangerous gorges where rivers are in spate. They should be included in any legislation.

As with climbing, perhaps the most important safety aspect in relation to moving water is the fact that people need to be aware of the hazards and have the appropriate skills to prevent themselves or others from getting into incidents. The Safe-Tay charity in Perth, which was established to promote water safety and to prevent future tragedies in our rivers, is to be commended, and I hope that the idea will be extended to other parts of Scotland.

Above all, it is important to take a much more co-ordinated approach and bring together all our rescue services. On that point, I fully agree with the motion.

Photo of Stefan Tymkewycz Stefan Tymkewycz Scottish National Party 5:13 pm, 6th June 2007

I commend Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service for being one of the few rescue services that has specifically trained personnel for specialised water rescue. Over and above the training that is received by all the fire and rescue staff, some personnel are trained to deal with the initial stages of water rescues.

Several years ago, I faced a real-life situation when I was a serving police officer in London. A colleague and I were dealing with an incident on one of the central London bridges over the Thames. We managed to grab the clothing of a young girl as she jumped from the parapet of the bridge, but for the next few seconds, as she was slipping out of her upper clothing and out of our grasp, I was faced with the thought, "If she falls into the river, do I go in after her or let her go?" Without having any specific training in moving water incidents as set out in the motion, that is a choice that I, or any other police or fire and rescue officer, should not have to make for themselves or for others.

Fortunately for me—and, more important, for the young girl—I did not have to make that choice because a third officer arrived on the scene and managed to lean over and grab her jeans so that, between the three of us, we managed to pull her over the parapet to safety. Decisions such as the one that I might have faced—and which have, I am sure, been faced by many police and fire and rescue officers in the past—could be avoided by putting in place the correct training and procedures.

If some fire and rescue services in Scotland provide a specialist service for water rescue training, it is surely time for all practices throughout Scotland to be reviewed in order to avoid officers facing potential disciplinary action—Roseanna Cunningham mentioned that—as a result of there not being a uniform practice for moving water incidents. It is also surely time for statutory regulations to be put in place to ensure that a clear and consistent service is provided to the public throughout Scotland.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party 5:15 pm, 6th June 2007

It is unfortunate, to say the least, that not one member of the Labour Party and not one Liberal Democrat is attending the debate.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I apologise to the member and beg his pardon. I should have said only that not one member of the Labour Party is attending the debate. I hope that there will be no repeat of this when such important issues are being debated in the future. Such debates provide a chance for members to highlight, as Roseanna Cunningham has done, issues of which we have not all been aware.

Obviously, I want to focus on the Borders. In 2004-05, there were nine rescues from water in the Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service area. In March, the Fire Brigades Union in Perth—what I am saying follows on from Roseanna Cunningham's comments—passed a motion of no confidence in the management because of the lack of, or inadequate, training on rescue from water. Let us compare that with what happens in Dublin. Dublin has three main waterways and 135 fully trained and equipped swift-water rescue technicians, who are highly and specially trained to carry out rescues. Those technicians have skills in fast-current swimming, hydrology and in using technical equipment to effect such rescues. Compare that with what happens in the Scottish Borders, which has five times the number of waterways but only one specialist team, to which Roseanna Cunningham referred. That team is based in Galashiels and consists of seven specialist fire and rescue personnel. We must not think that the relatively low number of rescues from water—as I said, there were nine incidents in 2004-05—means that no further training in the use of equipment and so on is needed. Obviously, more people could be rescued if there were more highly trained people.

Lothian and Borders Police have nine part-time officers who are trained in rescue from water, but that does not constitute a 24-hour shift pattern. There are seven qualified water technicians in the Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service area. An additional 24 have related water rescue qualifications, but do not have qualifications for entering the water. All front-line crews are trained as first responders in talk, reach and throw techniques, but would not enter the water to effect a rescue. That is part of the mixed pattern that my colleague highlighted.

There is a central training fund of around £40,000 for Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service, which was not increased in the past five or six years under the previous Government. There have been pressures on the fund to pay for other courses, such as working at heights courses, so water rescue training has been squeezed. In 2004-05, there was a mere £1,500 for it; in 2006-07, the figure was £7,500. We are talking about a pauchle and the matter must be addressed.

There is an internationally recognised set of standards and a training programme that is based on Rescue 3 International's programme. Rescue 3 International, which was formed in 1979, is a specialist water rescue organisation whose techniques, training and approach have been used by rescue professionals in 32 countries worldwide. Its approach is, of course, applied in Dublin. In Scotland, there are three Rescue 3 International course providers—in Dundee and Aviemore—which could offer the training that is needed so much.

I say to the minister that concern that there is no consistency has come out of the debate—there are delivery anomalies. I represent Galashiels and my concern is that although it is all right if a person falls in Gala Water in Galashiels, they would—because the appropriate service is located in Galashiels—be in difficulties if they were to fall in the water at Coldstream. The minister should consider the anomalies that exist, the need for consistency and clear lines of responsibility, and funding for training along the lines of that which is provided in Dublin.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party 5:19 pm, 6th June 2007

I congratulate Roseanna Cunningham on securing the debate, not only because this is the first members' debate in the new session, but because the issue is important. I thank her for raising it.

I pay tribute to George Parsonage, who has rescued more than 1,500 people from the River Clyde, and who was awarded a silver medal by the Royal Humane Society—the first of its kind in more than 100 years. The society was established in 1790 and is said to be the oldest life-saving society in the world. It has been forced to withdraw from Glasgow because of health and safety regulations, if members can believe that. George Parsonage, who continues to live beside the Clyde and is constantly vigilant, can no longer do his excellent work, which is very sad. I pay tribute to George for all his hard work.

As Roseanna Cunningham said, the situation in respect of rescue requires urgent review. I accept Strathclyde Fire and Rescue's point that it

"currently provides a Water Rescue capability throughout its area".

Roseanna touched on that, but the capability covers a very small area rather than the whole Clyde. No separate budget is allocated to water rescue training—costs must be absorbed by the central training budget. That cannot be right.

The anomaly can be traced back to the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005 which, among other things, gave ministers—maybe the minister will listen to this—the power to make an order conferring additional functions on the service, under its duty to respond to other, non-fire emergencies. Unfortunately, after consultation no order was made to deal with water rescue, except in the case of serious flooding. As a result, dealing with water rescue is left to each FRA, as has already been pointed out. I urge the minister to consult all FRAs, with a view to laying an order that would apply throughout Scotland and which would require FRAs to deal with water rescue.

We must address the serious issue that people may be disciplined for trying to do this humane work. We must also ensure that resources for training are not taken from central budgets but are allocated independently by the minister to each FRA. I hope that the minister will look favourably on those suggestions.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 5:22 pm, 6th June 2007

I congratulate Roseanna Cunningham on bringing this important matter to the chamber. I speak as an MSP for the Highlands and Islands, which contains many fast-moving and slow-moving rivers and many inland freshwater lochs—some huge and some small. Sadly, each year in those waters the lives of people who are taking part in sports such as angling, canoeing and kayaking, and others who simply go for a swim and are overtaken by currents or cold, are lost. The police, emergency services and the coastguard do a wonderful job when they are called out, but Roseanna Cunningham's motion will help to highlight the increasing number of accidents that occur in water in Scotland. I congratulate her on that.

I have a question for the minister about hidden reefs and rocks and submerged crannogs in our Scottish lochs. Is anyone responsible for marking those hazards, which contribute so much to loss of life in water, through boating accidents? I have asked the question before in Parliament, but I have not yet received a satisfactory answer.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party 5:23 pm, 6th June 2007

I thank all those who have stayed to contribute to and listen to this evening's debate. In particular, I thank Roseanna Cunningham for initiating the first members' business debate of the third session of the Scottish Parliament. I am aware that Roseanna has pursued the issue as a result of a constituent's coming to see her about a problem, and that she has done so tenaciously and doggedly, as is her wont. I believe that that doggedness is not about to cease and I welcome the opportunity that her motion has given us to debate the issues that arise from it.

The primary statutory duty for protecting life rests with the police, which is the main point that I made in response to the oral question that Roseanna Cunningham asked on the matter last week. However, out of respect for her and for the importance of the issue—given that lives are at stake—I decided to look up the relevant statutory provisions, which are contained in the Police (Scotland) Act 1967, as amended. The act sets out the overarching duty of the constables of a police force. It is:

"to guard, patrol and watch so as—

(i) to prevent the commission of offences.

(ii) to preserve order, and

(iii) to protect life and property".

Plainly, this debate is concerned with the protection of life element of the duty. The motto of the police is "Semper vigilo", so it is important to set in context the fact that their overarching responsibility is to discharge that statutory function in Scotland. They might well carry out that duty in partnership with the fire and rescue services; with, as Elizabeth Smith pointed out, mountain rescue; with, as Jamie McGrigor mentioned, the coastguard; and with others. However, we must not forget that, under the law, the police alone have that primary statutory responsibility.

Given that the duty already rests with the police, I am not convinced that there is a need to extend it to anyone else. Indeed, in ways that I hope to develop, it might be counterproductive to do so. Fire and rescue services can and do respond to requests for assistance from the police, and there is no question of their ever refusing to attend.

Elizabeth Smith, in particular, highlighted the issue of flooding. As a result of an episode in Tayside, the Fire (Additional Function) (Scotland) Order 2005 placed a new responsibility on fire and rescue services to make provision for

"rescuing people trapped, or likely to become trapped, by water ... in the event of" flooding. I can inform Parliament that more than £500,000 has been spent on equipping our eight fire and rescue services with dry suits, boots, gloves, personal flotation devices, floating stretchers and rescue sleds to ensure that they comply with the terms of that order. I also know that thermal imaging equipment, which is particularly valuable in locating a body in moving water, has been purchased and is available. Each fire and rescue service now has such water rescue equipment, but the key point is that we need to distinguish between still and fast-moving water.

The equipment that has been provided under the 2005 order is essentially for use in flooded areas that would under normal circumstances be classed as dry land. However, it is much more dangerous to effect a rescue in moving water. Indeed, that very fact was highlighted just this week with the sad death of a young boy in the River Ayr. I am sure that we would all want to emphasise the extreme danger of swimming in, or even entering, moving water. As I recall from my climbing days, the force of water even in very small burns can be huge and can take a person completely unawares. The point is that we must distinguish between flooding and rivers.

I am duty bound to make it clear that Tom Brown, to whose courage I paid tribute last week, acted outwith the standing instructions. However, I have been informed by officials that no disciplinary action against him has been considered. Nevertheless, I say to Roseanna Cunningham that I seek further comments from each police constabulary and fire and rescue service to address the point that has been raised by various members about the need for more equipment and training.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

Does the minister accept that, notwithstanding the statutory position, the import of the many letters that I have received from various constabularies around Scotland is that, in the main, the police are not carrying out the duty? In the two very large cases—Strathclyde and Lothian and the Borders—the fire and rescue services do so, seemingly without reference to the police. In other areas where the police force does respond, its response has been that no one is trained in the task and that they do not actually carry out the duty.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I understand entirely the point that Roseanna Cunningham makes. In mountain rescue, although the legal duty rests with the police, many rescues are carried out by civilian mountain rescue teams—which are accountable through the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland—and the Royal Air Force. The police have the statutory duty and are ultimately in control, but Roseanna Cunningham is absolutely right to state that, in practice, it is often firefighters who are asked to attend incidents involving moving water.

I should say that the Executive has received no request from chief officers in respect of funding for training and that variation in provision is largely down to the varying geography of Scotland. It would be strange if it were not thus.

More consideration needs to be given to the issue and I say to Roseanna Cunningham that that will be done, so I would be grateful if she would share with me the correspondence to which she referred. I undertake that my officials will give it proper and full consideration, given that lives are at risk.

Stefan Tymkewycz set out clearly the dilemma that faces everyone in such situations—firefighters, in particular—which is whether to attempt a rescue by entering moving water in a river. That is a very real human dilemma. In conclusion, I underscore the fact that the primary responsibility of every mountain rescue team member, every policeman and every firefighter is to have proper regard for their own safety. I know that all the members of those services take that obligation very seriously.

Meeting closed at 17:32.