Water safety

Drowning is a leading cause of accidental death in the UK and together with our partner agencies, we’re committed to ensuring everyone in Cornwall is equipped with the information they need to stay safe around water.

Most people don't think of the fire service when it comes to water rescue, but it's an important part of our work. While we hope you'll never need them, we have specialist water rescue crews ready to respond to emergencies across Cornwall 24/7. 

If you or someone else is in trouble in water call 999 immediately. For inland water rescue such as a lake or river, ask for the fire service, and for sea water rescue ask for the coastguard. 

Drowning statistics in Cornwall

Drowning accounts for more accidental fatalities in the UK annually than fire deaths in the home or cycling deaths on the road.

In 2017, Cornwall had the highest number of accidental and natural cause water related deaths in England with 10 recorded. Analysis shows that just over a third of people who have died from accidental water related deaths in Cornwall were residents and a fifth were visitors.

Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service supports the Devon and Cornwall Police led awareness campaign Coast Safe to reduce tragedies on our coastlines. The Twitter account #CoastSafe aims to ensure that you, a family member or friend don’t become one of this year’s statistics.

Known facts

  • Over half of all drowning deaths are among those aged under 25 years.
  • Drowning is one of the leading causes of death for people aged 1-24 years. 
  • Males are twice as likely to drown as females.

Audio transcript of the above video: Everyone who falls into cold water has the same instinct to swim hard but cold water shock can make them gasp uncontrollably and breathe in water then they drown. But if they just float until the cold water shock has passed then they will have a far better chance at staying alive.

Have a look at the advice below to stay safe around water.

  • Cold water shock – low water temperature can numb limbs and render the strongest swimmer helpless in minutes. 2/3 of accidental drowning involve strong swimmers.
  • Sub surface hazards. There may be debris and rubbish beneath the surface or missing drain covers during floods. 
  • Currents or water conditions – water does not need to be moving very fast to sweep you off your feet and there may be strong currents even in still water.
  • Alcohol consumption – alcohol severely affects your hazard perception, co-ordination and resistance to the cold.
  • Swimming Competency – don’t assume because you can swim in a pool that you can deal with the challenges and temperatures of open water swimming. 
  • Access - There may be steep, rocky and slippery access routes to and from fishing and swimming sites, and river banks can be eroded very quickly when rivers are running high.

Be aware of the dangers

Quick links to safety information for:

  • Firstly call for help, dial 999 and ask for the coastguard if you are at the coast, fire service and ambulance if you are inland.
  • Try and give an accurate location use landmarks or signs and stay on the line.
  • Do not enter the water. It is human nature to want to help but often will only result in two casualties in the water and nobody to direct rescuers to the scene.
  • Shout to them, try and get them to swim towards you, use simple language and commands e.g. swim to me.
  • Look for lifesaving equipment to throw (life rings, throw ropes) or something to reach out to them like tree branches or clothing, making sure you keep a low centre of gravity so you don’t get pulled in. Just throwing them some flotation might be enough to keep their head above water, anything, even a football or empty container would help.

Further lifesaving information: RNLI'S Respect the Water campaign - Float to Live.

Cornwall has an abundance of disused quarries and mine workings which are flooded and might appear an inviting place to swim.

In fact they are among the most dangerous places to bathe often containing very cold, contaminated water, old machinery and all manner of other sub-surface debris.

It will be all but impossible to judge water depth and water levels and depths may change considerably, jumping in to these sort of sites leads to severe injuries and deaths every year, usually involving young people. Please take a moment to talk to your children about the dangers involved.

Despite seeming safe, 14 anglers lost their life in drownings in 2014.

  • Check the weather forecast before you leave home, if your at the river check there are no flood warnings in force.
  • Take a fully charged mobile, check the signal and know where you are, use an OS grid reference if you can.
  • Do not enter the water if there is a strong current and always wear a floatation vest when wading
  • When you arrive at your spot, check that it is safe i.e. that the bank below has not been eroded, consider what you will do if you fall into the water and where you could get out
  • Tell someone where you are going and when you are expected to return.
  • Flooded wellington boots or waders make it very difficult to move and can be a significant hazard.
  • Be aware of local water hazards such as weirs, strong currents, slippery or undercut banks etc.

Open water swimming is an increasingly popular sport and a great way for adults to keep fit whilst enjoying nature. Taking sensible precautions will enhance your safety:

  • Swimming in a group or better still at an organised event is a safer way of starting open water swimming, never swim alone.
  • Start slowly, build up strength and experience gradually. You will develop some resistance to cold water but cold shock always remains a danger, get out before you get cold and make sure you have warm clothes to put on.
  • Never swim in canals, locks or urban rivers; flowing water can be extremely powerful and levels can rise several feet in minutes even if it is not raining where you are. Moving water will rob you of heat 250 times more quickly than still water.
  • Do not jump in, you never know what might be hidden just below the surface, if the water is very cold sudden immersion can cause a gasp reflex causing you to inhale water on contact.
  • Wear a brightly coloured swim hat and consider a safety buoy (pictured right) to make yourself more visible.
  • Always consider your exit point, and any emergency exits, before you get in the water.

Further lifesaving information: Wild swimming information and safety advice

Runners and walkers are the group at highest risk of accidental drowning in the UK. People who have no intention of entering the water may well be unaware of all of the dangers posed by waterways, consequently they can find themselves in difficulty when they fall in or enter to help someone else or an animal. Two thirds of fatalities in these groups were alone at the time of the incident.

  • When running next to water stay back from the edges, pay attention to your footing and beware of trip hazards. Wear appropriate footwear.
  • Don’t walk or run when river levels are high, or extreme weather is expected.
  • Avoid waterside footpaths in the dark, if you do use them and use a hands free light i.e. head torch
  • Carry a charged mobile phone with you.
  • Dogs can usually only swim for short bursts, keep an eye on your dog and don’t let them swim if old or tired.
  • If river levels are high or fast flowing keep dogs on a lead, their swimming abilities will be no match for a fast flowing river.
  • Never enter the water to save a dog in difficulty, they will usually self-rescue and it is extremely difficult to handle a panicking animal whilst in the water.

Like so many other fatal or like changing accidents alcohol and drugs play their part in drowning, 25% of drowning victims have alcohol in their bloodstream and they were most likely to be in the 15-29 age group. Drinking will reduce inhibitions and increase the likelihood of risk taking behaviour whilst at the same time impairing judgement, co-ordination and reducing tolerance to the cold. All compounded by the fact that many of these drownings happen in the dark.

Try and stay safe by:

  • Staying with your group, and keep an eye on those that might be worse for wear and unsteady on their feet.
  • Avoid walking near the water even if it is well lit, a simple stumble might be all it takes for you to end up in the water. Take a safe route home.
  • Don’t be tempted to take shortcuts, go skinny dipping or fall for dares from your friends.

For more life saving information visit the Royal Lifesaving Society Don't Drink and Drown Campaign.

Around 5.2m of properties in England are at risk of flooding and in Cornwall 1 in 6 properties is at risk from some sort of flooding.

Whether there are swollen rivers or general floodwater on roads and pathways, it is vital people follow simple, common sense, steps during periods of flooding to help ensure they, and their families, stay safe.

  • Never try to walk or drive through floodwater – six inches of fast flowing water can knock an adult over and two feet of water will float a car. Water flowing into open drain covers or through culverts will create strong undertows which may not be visible on the surface, and if swept away water can pin you against an object from which escape would be impossible.
  • Never allow children or pets to go near or play in floodwater. It is hazardous and may be contaminated with chemicals
  • Keep an eye on weather reports for flooding in your area. Do not travel or walk near water courses in heavy rainstorms unless absolutely necessary

For further help and advice, view our flooding web pages. 

Every year people lose their lives when their vehicles enter the water, some of those occur during periods of flooding when water encroaches on to normally well drained carriageways or when normally benign river crossings (fords) become raging torrents.

  • Avoid driving through floodwater and never attempt to cross if you don’t know how deep the water is, less than 60cm of standing water will float many cars.
  • Do not try to cross fast moving water at flooded fords, overtopped bridges or flooded roads only 30cm of flowing water could move a car off a road.
  • Even if the water level is not excessive the road beneath could be damaged or the hard-core below the tarmac may have been washed away by the scouring action of the water, causing the road to collapse when the weight of a vehicle passes over it.
  • Take particular care at night when it might be difficult to see patches of standing water or flooded roads.
  • Do not ignore road closed signs they are there for a reason. If you come across impassable roads or have to abandon your car inform the Police.
  • Don’t assume fords are safe to cross just because the road is not closed, always look at the river level gauge and use your common sense.

The Service supports four key water safety initiatives each year:


Younger children

Flooding - Be prepared

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