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Meet the international innovators

When RNLI lifeguard and flood rescue instructors first delivered training overseas, a pattern started to emerge.

Flood rescue training exercise in Bangladesh

Photo: RNLI/Mike Lavis

In countries like Bangladesh and Kenya, where lifesaving resources are few and funds often limited, they found improvisation. They saw innovation. And above all, they encountered an overwhelming attitude of rethinking the problem using skills and materials close at hand.

Now a whole new kit design and testing project has started. Together with the programmes that help communities train their own lifesavers and educators, it will help these groups save lives long into the future.

Take a plastic, 5-litre container. Not much to look at? Pretty handy for carrying water, yes. Generally lacking the usual orange or red livery of lifesaving kit. But this unassuming vessel was the spark that kicked off a whole new side to the RNLI’s work overseas.

‘We were working on Zanzibar and saw the way they roped together these containers to use as marker buoys,’ remembers Darren Williams, a former RNLI lifeguard who works in the International Team, developing the frameworks and resources for new programmes including Lifeguarding and Aquatic Survival. ‘They turned the sea into a safe, controlled area to teach kids to swim. It was a great, cheap alternative to commercial versions. Then we thought: “There’s a lot more to it than that.” We realised they could be used as rescue aids, dummy casualties, all sorts of things … ’

‘That’s where the kit project has come from,’ he adds. ‘Looking at the materials people use in their daily lives to try and engineer rescue equipment with them.’

As the International programme starts to apply RNLI knowledge to new environments, one thing becomes clear: there’s more than one way to conduct a rescue. ‘It doesn’t have to be using a set technique or using a specific piece of equipment,’ says Darren. ‘As long as it does the job, that’s all that matters when resources are limited. And it’s far more sustainable and cost-effective than shipping out expensive kit from the UK indefinitely.’

The throw bag – a tale of two countries

Throw bags are a vital piece of rescue equipment. They enable the user to avoid entering the water, putting themselves in greater danger and creating another casualty – or even fatality. And they’re pretty simple to make and use, given the right training and information.

With parallel projects in Bangladesh and the Philippines, countries regularly afflicted with horrendous flooding will soon have a sustainable and simple means of producing their own bags.

‘Ultimately it’s a bag with a length of rope attached – we’re just showing people how to make a good one!’ says Barry Heathfield, an RNLI lifeguard manager who’s delivered training in the Philippines and helped get the kit project moving there.

The Philippines

Dan Navarro attended the RNLI’s Future Leaders in Lifesaving in 2012. During the course, RNLI trainers presented delegates with a pile of junk items and challenged them to come up with a rescue or training aid. Dan would soon take that inventiveness – and a throw bag – home with him, and use them to make a difference in the Philippines.

He knew local organisations couldn’t afford to import the bags, which retail at around £35 in the UK. So he started asking around, hunting out materials and finding the people who could help him put them all together. Dan worked out the whole process from start to finish, creating a bag that costs almost a tenth of the price – £4.02, including materials and labour.

There are still challenges, though. The longest length of rope you can buy locally is 15m, which makes mass production that bit more difficult. Stockpiling materials and scaling up the process will therefore be the next step.

The first bags are already in the hands of people who have trained with the RNLI – lifesavers from across the country who now have basic rescue equipment for their own communities. In a country where floods sweep away homes, livelihoods and lives, this help can’t come soon enough.

Meanwhile Barry is creating a simple photo guide explaining how to make the kit. Like many of the RNLI’s other International training materials, the finished guide will be an open-source publication free for anyone to use.

Barry is optimistic about the impact that training – whether it’s in swimming to a casualty or sewing a throw bag – can have in a short space of time: ‘When you cut back to the basics of how to save a life, doing things in a really hands-on way, it’s very easy to say: “Right, we’re starting with nothing. Let’s learn or sew something, and save a life.” It’s a very rewarding way to work.’


‘We took a couple of bags out with us in 2013, and one of the guys asked: “What’s that?”’ remembers Darren. It was Rashed Alam, a full-time supervisor of the Sea Safe lifeguards at Cox’s Bazar. ‘I explained what they were, how much they cost, and he said: “Wow, we could make them for a lot cheaper, we could get that material and rope.” And off he went.’

Now, thanks to Rashed, there’s a local craftsman who’s hand-sewn around 40 bags (see main picture above). At the moment the process is small-scale and time-consuming, but it’s already making a difference. The bags have gone to the Bangladeshi Fire Service and Civil Defence, and were used when RNLI flood trainers went out to work with them last November. ‘If we merge this with the work in the Philippines, we’ll end up with a really great product,’ says Darren.

The rescue board

A rescue board is an important addition to any lifeguard’s kit, particularly for rescuing multiple casualties from strong rip currents and waves. This comes at a price. What if lifesaving organisations overseas had a cheaper local, sustainable alternative?

Gold of Bengal is a French association committed to finding ethical innovations for developing countries. In 2009 engineer Corentin Chatelperron came up with a marine composite material made from jute instead of glass fibre, which led to the first ever boat to be constructed entirely from this material. (Look out for the Google translate button on their website if your French isn’t fantastique.)

Jute grows abundantly in Bengal, it removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it grows, and its production and processing employs millions of people in one of the most densely populated regions on Earth. It’s a credible, sustainable alternative to fibre glass composites.

We’re working with Gold of Bengal to design a rescue board using this technology. Their challenge is to make the board:

  • built in one location, by one team
  • affordable
  • using local, recyclable material
  • functional
  • easily repairable.

They’ll create the product, and then provide training to local communities on how to make their own. The jute hull gives rigidity and strength, but the design also incorporates buoyant foam that can be repaired or replaced cheaply and easily, so damaged boards don’t become redundant.

The rescue tube

Reduced to its basic elements, a rescue tube is simple: a piece of shaped foam with webbing running through it, a length of rope and a clip. It can be strapped around an unconscious casualty, keeping them afloat and allowing deep-water resuscitation to be performed.

Since every tube represents years of rigorous research, testing and demanding health and safety standards, they aren’t cheap. Finding a realistic alternative in low- and middle-income countries dramatically improves the service lifeguards can provide.

‘I’m not a designer by any means, but when I was in Bangladesh I just looked at what they have that floats, and how we can make it look loosely like a rescue tube and function in the same way,’ says Darren. Initially he and the local team tried out hard plastic fishing floats, tied together in a belt. It gave good buoyancy, but wouldn’t have kept an unconscious casualty upright.

‘So we tried tying the floats together in pairs, and covered them in a kind of sock of material,’ Darren continues. ‘The pairing gave much more rigidity to the tube, and kept the person more secure and upright in the water.’

Based on this initial research, the RNLI is working with Jacob Lee, a product design undergraduate at Bournemouth University. Jacob’s given his time to work on a similar belt design, using closed cell foam instead of fishing floats, which is currently at the prototyping stage. One of his fellow students is also working on a resuscitation mannequin for the project.

‘We think we’ve found someone in Bangladesh who makes the kind of foam we need,’ says Darren. ‘Once we know for sure, we can take Jacob’s single design mould and get hundreds of rescue tubes manufactured in the country where they’re needed.’

Forward thinking

The equipment project isn’t the only way to take a sustainable approach to tackling global drowning. As programmes are developed and refined, the team build a bank of ideas to test and improve on their next deployments, using input from local partners. Those partners then gain the skills needed to train and develop their own lifesavers, or deliver education sessions, for the long term.

The trick is to make the resources generic enough to be applied worldwide, yet flexible enough to be tailored to the unique demands of each country – cultural, religious, environmental, financial and literacy-related factors all create different needs.

The Aquatic Survival programme is a perfect example – piloted in Tanzania and shared with delegates on the 2014 Future Leaders programme, it’s now being rolled out by one of these future leaders in Ghana.

Time is one of the most valuable currencies in this process. ‘We’ve found that a lot of our work has been meeting face-to-face and building trust before getting started. The first few years have been about identifying opportunities and gathering input from local partners, then slowly building on that,’ says Steve Wills, the RNLI’s Head of International Programmes.

‘Now we’re looking at new ways to communicate the information we have, such as online learning tools, mobile phone technology and maybe even early warning systems to flag up specific issues.’

The process isn’t a one-way street, either. RNLI trainers gain skills that can be put to use at home. ‘I’ve learned not to be afraid to try new things or to challenge people.’ says Darren. ‘If you’ve got something new that you think is the right tool and it works, why not try it?’

Steve agrees: ‘We’ve been able to let ideas incubate without committing ourselves immediately, and that approach is happening more and more in the RNLI.’

The RNLI’s International programme is working with partners worldwide to raise awareness of the global drowning epidemic. An estimated 372,000 people drown every year worldwide. Projects like this enable communities to develop their own rescue and prevention services, with minimal investment from external funders. For just 1% of the RNLI’s total expenditure, innovative programmes and kit will save thousands of lives. To find out more, see