Vandals who recklessly tamper with life rings are putting people at risk – and could lead to lives being lost – a north-east MSP said today.
Campaigners have called for more to be done across Scotland to improve water safety – including introducing a colour-coded rope that could help deter thieves or assist police in tracing them if stolen.
We checked 30 life rings along a two-mile stretch of the River Dee from Victoria Bridge to the Bridge of Dee.
During the checks we found three which showed signs of damage – one with the red tag which seals it split, one without its tag, and another with the handle removed and discarded nearby. Multiple devices had graffiti on them.
Now Aberdeen City Council has been praised for its water safety policies, and for taking swift action to fix damaged equipment.
It comes after a series of deaths in Scottish waters in the last week.
Stickers added to life rings
Several others had no visible instructions displayed on the front on how to use the equipment – with graffiti and stickers filling the empty space.
Aberdeen City Council carries out twice weekly checks on life rings, and when we went back to look two days after our first visit, the damage had been repaired and instruction stickers added to the front.
On the second day of our checks focusing on the Torry/Kincorth side of the river we found six life rings without outer instructions. Some of the life rings we saw during the two-day check were surrounded by overgrown grass and difficult to reach.
An Aberdeen City Council spokeswoman said: “The tall grass and weeds around life rings along the rivers are cut back periodically. At this time of year, this vegetation can grow rapidly so we thank the Evening Express for bringing those sites to our attention.”
The council say all life rings have instructions – some are inside when the seal is broken and the door is opened. The local authority has added stickers to the front of some of these to ensure people are aware the instructions are inside, and will add more stickers to other units shortly.
‘Vandalising equipment increases risk of tragedy’
Scottish Conservative north-east MSP Douglas Lumsden praised Aberdeen City Council for repairing the damaged life rings so quickly, but hit out at those tampering with them.
He said: “It’s been absolutely devastating to see the high number of water tragedies which have occurred across Scotland in recent weeks.
“To vandalise safety equipment along our waters increases the risk of something like this happening in Aberdeen.
“Life rings are there to try to save lives however lives may ultimately be lost if these are tampered with.
“It’s completely idiotic and irresponsible to damage these vital pieces of equipment and I’m glad the council has taken swift action to rectify the issue.
“As the warm weather continues, I would urge people to think twice before recklessly removing life rings or throw lines – it could be the difference between someone surviving or not.”
Research into alert systems
Graeme Dutton, chairman of the Aberdeen Water Safety Group encouraged people to report any signs of damage they see on equipment and spoke of how attempts had been made to find a type of rapid alert system to notify the council about any damage immediately.
He said: “We have been doing research into trying to find something that can alert us quickly when something has been tampered with or opened, but so far we haven’t found anything.
“It’s mostly the council that has done that, but everyone in the water safety group has been looking and chatting to the chair of the national water safety group.
“They are looking for ways in which we can attach some kind of device to them that will alert the council so you know it needs checking now rather than on its schedule.”
Discussions on water safety have been taking place this week after the tragic deaths of Edina Olahova, 29, Rana Haris Ali, 9, and Muhammad Asim Riaz, 39. They died after getting into difficulty in the water near Pulpit Rock at Loch Lomond last Saturday evening.
Three further people died in separate incidents in Scotland’s waters at the weekend.
And on Friday a 34-year-old man died in hospital after being rescued from Loch Lubnaig on Sunday – the seventh death in the last week.
Calls to improve water safety nationally
The pain of losing a loved one is something Duncan and Margaret Spiers know only too well. Their son Christopher was 28 when he drowned in the River Clyde. He had slipped into the river while trying to get home after a night out with friends.
Weather conditions at the time were severe, and although Christopher had been thrown a life ring, he was unable to reach it. Now since his death in 2016 his parents tirelessly campaign for improved water safety across Scotland.
Duncan, 56, from Glasgow said: “Given the circumstances over the weekend and the lives that have been lost – you can’t put a cost on lives. There need to be better water safety procedures put in place across Scotland.”
Duncan added, “Aberdeen has a water safety policy which is fantastic, same as Glasgow. Greenock has one too and Kinross, but that’s only four water safety groups that I know of in any city council. We are trying to get the Scottish Government to give funding out to other local councils so they too can have water safety groups and policies in place.”
Christopher’s Saving Lives campaign is also aiming to have a specific type of rope introduced across Scotland to use with life rings.
The ropes float well and are unlikely to become tangled. Its multi-coloured orange, purple and yellow design stands out, helping police to trace it back to life rings, if stolen.
So far the campaign has seen the rope implemented at Clydeside by Glasgow City Council.
‘It’s not just our family…it’s others too’
Duncan said of the rope which can only be bought from the manufacturer rather than retailers: “The rope doesn’t cost much, it’s £53. It’s not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things.
“The idea of the multi-coloured rope is in case it does get damaged and the police do find somebody with it they can follow it back to the lifebelts and say ‘you can’t buy this in any shops’.”
Duncan is keen to meet the First Minister to discuss the campaign, and added: “I would plead with the First Minister to meet us. It’s not just our family, it’s other families that are suffering as well.”
‘Scottish Government takes water safety very seriously’
It is up to local authorities across Scotland to agree and adopt their own policies on water safety.
The Scottish Government provides funding to Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) and the Scottish Community Safety Network (SCSN) to raise awareness of water safety and to support local authorities.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Our sympathies are with Mr Spiers’ family and friends who have been affected by his tragic loss of life and, as we have offered previously, we would be happy to meet with them to discuss any issues they want to raise.
“The Scottish Government takes water safety very seriously and works closely with Water Safety Scotland and other partners, including local councils and police, to implement and support initiatives that can help raise awareness of the hazards around water and reduce deaths from accidental drowning.
“Both the Scottish Government and the emergency services are currently reflecting on recent tragic incidents and looking at what more can be done to mitigate risks and to educate people about the dangers of Scotland’s coastal and inland waters.”