This weekend has tragically seen the death of six people in lochs, beauty spots and rivers across Scotland. This is a heart-breaking figure which brings the dangers of open water swimming to the forefront of public concern. Four of these deaths occurred at Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, with two others occurring in Hamilton and Lanark respectively.
Given the high temperatures experienced across Scotland, it is reasonable to expect people to go for a swim to cool down. The dangers are not immediately obvious. Despite the heat, waters typically retain a very cold temperature. Many swimming spots in Scotland have an extreme depth due to their formation and there are strong currents which lurk beneath the surface. Even experienced swimmers can suffer from cold water shock and Scottish Fire and Rescue Service have reiterated this danger again following the deaths.
The Loch Lomond National Park Authority have confirmed they will meet with local authorities to discuss what more can be done to address the risks posed and whether anything can be done to reduce the risk to the public.
It must be said that the tragic deaths over the weekend are still too soon to say exactly where improvements can be made and each incident will turn on their own facts.
There is signage installed at many reservoirs and across national parks, including at Loch Lomond, advising of the risks. There has additionally been summer campaigns raising awareness and the installation of further safety equipment. Whether considerations, such as a grading system acknowledging the varying degrees of risks by area of water, or the worst possible solution, a ban entirely on certain swimming locations, questions must be addressed as to what can be done to limit further deaths.
A clear issue which has arisen from this weekend is the pressure put on Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and Police Scotland in responding to multiple issues. Along Scotland’s coasts there is of course the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). A solution may be an equivalent service designed to specifically address the risks of swimming in some of Scotland’s most popular swimming destinations, such as Loch Lomond. The ‘make-up’ of such a service would need careful thought but could comprise a first port of call in such emergencies.
There are park rangers based in Balloch at the Duncan Mills Memorial Slipway with a boat team based there being able to respond. The difficulties they face is that the time for such a base to respond to an incident near the top of Loch Lomond is prolonged.
Consideration should be given to the implementation of further safety precautions. Whilst signage, safety equipment and awareness marketing are welcomed, as has been delivered by the Loch Lomond National Park, these fall short of the efficacy that the close proximity and experience of locally based first responders could provide in a life or death situation.
There is no transparent and coherent method of response being clearly communicated to the public of what to do when faced with a situation where someone is seen to be struggling in internal waters. This aspect is clear when on coastal waters with the RNLI the first port of call. A comparable service based initially at the most frequented swimming spots could help to raise awareness of the dangers through visible presence and act as a last resort should a member of the public come into trouble.
In the summer months, we cannot expect the public to not swim in lochs and local beauty spots, but we can consider ways of making a dip in the water safer for all. Whilst no alterations can bring back any of the loved ones lost this past weekend, we can ensure that lessons are learned. The ability of the public to enjoy the beauty of Scotland should not mean that safety is compromised.
Blog by Conor Kenny, Solicitor