A firefighter’s job is not just to pull people out of burning buildings. Each year, young and old get into trouble in Yorkshire’s rivers, canals, lakes and weirs and a call is made to the fire service to rescue them.
In the last five financial years (April 2010 – March 2015) West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (WYFRS) has been called to 107 water rescue incidents across the county – nine of which resulted in fatalities.
During the same period for the Leeds district specifically, crews were called to 47 water rescue incidents – which resulted in five of the fatalities.
Out of the 47 Leeds district water rescue incidents, 31 were from the River Aire and two resulted in fatalities.
In total WYFRS has carried out more water rescues in Leeds district than any other across the county and we are actively working with the Leeds Riverside Safety Group in an attempt to prevent further incidents involving the waterways in and around the City Centre.
The water rescue team has chosen the River Aire as the location for an exercise to coincide with the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) national Water Safety and Drowning Prevention Week (starting on Monday, April 13).
Station Manager Ian Thompson, a Technical Rescue Officer, said: “The River Aire runs through central Leeds and for that reason alone it presents a potential hazard due to its close proximity to a densely populated area with lots of shops, pubs and clubs.
“There’s a high number of passing pedestrians, some of whom are under the influence of alcohol, which can lead to over exuberance or people becoming disorientated and getting into trouble in the river.
“Over 50% of the rescues from the River Aire have happened on a weekend.”
In an attempt to safeguard the public, the fire service is carrying out training with the Inner City West Yorkshire Police Teams and the Leeds Street Angels, who are a voluntary group who patrol the city on certain nights into the early hours.
SM Thompson added: “Due to the nature of their work it is possible that the Police or the Street Angels could come across someone in trouble in the water, however, we do not want them to put themselves at risk by jumping in to perform a rescue and then becoming a casualty themselves.
“By offering this training we hope to provide top tips on what to do safely in those moments before the fire service’s water rescue team arrive and how to best utilise equipment such as throw lines.”
The fire service also hopes that the Street Angels will be able to draw on their network of contacts with local pub landlords and door staff, who can then pass on the water safety messages to drinkers.
Apart from the River Aire, there are many other examples of open water across the Leeds district and as we approach the May Bank Holidays and ultimately school holidays, now is the time to take on board safety advice.
SM Thompson said: “We are beginning to see the weather turn warmer which means we will all be getting out and about a bit more to enjoy the great outdoors.
“Too often in the past people have been drawn to the cooling waters on a hot day, only to find that they are simply not capable of functioning in the low temperatures encountered in the deeper water.
“Even people who consider themselves strong swimmers can be caught out by hyperventilation or muscles going into cramp making it impossible to swim.
“Often this results in a call to the emergency services and in some instances with a fatal outcome.”
Strong currents – water that looks calm can often hide strong currents beneath the surface. Reservoirs in particular can have pipes beneath the surface which draw water away, creating currents. Should you be heading to the coast, remember the open sea can also hide dangerous swells which can get even the strongest of swimmers into trouble.
The cold and hyperventilation – when deaths occur, it’s the temperature of the water which is often the most crucial factor. Reservoirs can be deep and the water in them doesn’t flow like in rivers or the sea so the temperature rarely rises much above 12 C.
Hyperventilation is the body’s natural defense in an attempt to increase oxygen in the blood to help stave off the cold. The body will then begin to shut down to protect vital organs and muscles will go into cramp, making it impossible to swim.
How deep? It’s often difficult to tell how deep open water is and youngsters can suddenly become out of their depth.
What lies beneath? It’s easy to strike your head on something below the surface and be knocked unconscious, or even become entangled in something that lies beneath and be dragged under.
WYFRS has five stations with a water rescue specialism – Leeds, Rothwell, Bingley, Brighouse and Wakefield.
Water Safety and Drowning Prevention Week is being led nationally by the Chief Fire Officers Association. There were 669 water-related fatalities in 2013  nationally.
The water rescue exercise will take place on Tuesday, April 14, at 10am at the rear of Asda House, Meadow Lane, Leeds, which backs onto the River Aire.
 National Water Safety Forum Water Incident Database (WAID) data, 2013