Donate now

Lifesaving for dummies

When you’re a bright red, 15-stone encumbrance, with a permanently blank expression, you tend to be the butt of everyone’s jokes. Every day I’m dumped unceremoniously into cold seas and abandoned for hours on end, hoping someone will save me. The crews call me Fred. Dead Fred.


RNLI crew members training with their manikin, Dead Fred

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

I'm a bit chilly but it's worth it to help the crew at Padstow with their rescue training

Regular training turns ordinary volunteers into extraordinary lifesavers. And one of the most important parts of that training is leaning how to deal with casualties. 

It’s one thing knowing the theory but getting it right in real life takes a lot of practice, especially if it’s to become second nature in high-octane situations.

That’s where I come in – the training manikin. And if it wasn’t for me, my RNLI crew mates across the UK and Ireland couldn’t learn how to search for missing people, how to safely approach casualties at sea, and how to pick people out of the water and carefully transfer them on stretchers. 

It’s too risky doing these drills with real humans – they might get lost, injured or even drowned, so I’m the next best thing. Most of the time I’ll get chucked overboard and the crew will clear off and then come back to find me later. 

I wouldn’t say they’re fair-weather friends, exactly. They treat me like this all the time, in all weathers.

RNLI crew members putting the training manikin on a stretcher

Photo: RNLI/Harry Page

Here are the crew at St Davids rescuing me during a training exercise

Dummy profile

Full name: Man Overboard Training Manikin
AKA: Dead Fred, Freda, Ruth, Bob 
Weight: 20–90kg
Skin type: Tough nylon mesh in red, orange or black
Innards: Closed-cell foam with shale-filled weights 
Care: Hard-wearing and maintenance free – just needs a hosing down
Family: More than 150 siblings across the RNLI
Clients: RNLI, Coastguard and other emergency services
Earnings: A one-off payment of around £1,000

The drifter

When I’m training with all-weather lifeboat crews, they’ll leave me to drift on the wind and the tide. I don’t mind really. It’s important that I mimic how a real person would float and move around in the water because that’s great for training crews how to work out where someone would end up. 

They carry handy check cards with all the important figures to help them do this on the go. They calculate the tide, which affects everyone in the same way, but the wind affects casualties in all sorts of different ways, so they have to be sharp on that too. 

 A real person wearing a lifejacket drifts in a different way to someone who isn’t. I’m exactly the same. Trainees get briefed on a search scenario and told if I’m wearing a lifejacket or not, where I entered the water and at what time. Then, with an eye on the weather, they have to calculate where I end up and come and safely recover me. Sound easy? It isn’t.

How’s Annie?

I hate to complain but my legs do feel terribly heavy at times. I guess that’s because they’re full of shale. They’re my weightiest part – there’s not a great deal up top you see. But I have brothers and sisters who come in all sorts of colours, weights and sizes and I spent a lot of time with my sweetheart Resusci Annie the CPR manikin. We have children – even a dog – who all get in on the action. Crews tend to buy us locally though, so you might not see us at every station.

If the sea state is rough, crews prefer me in dayglo orange or red and slap me in a lifejacket. If it’s flat calm, they prefer me in black without a lifejacket so I’m trickier to find. 

Inshore crews prefer my little brother because he’s much harder to spot. They have to be experts at searching with pinpoint accuracy and get right up close to haul him aboard. I feel sorry for him because they usually tether him to a post or anchor him so he can’t escape. He’s a bit easier to handle than I am though. 

RNLI crew members training with their casualty manikin

Photo: RNLI/Sarah Elmes

I get to lie in a stretcher while the crew at Swanage practise transferring a casualty onto their lifeboat

Hot headed

I don’t just get roped in on crew training. Last year, a few of my brothers and I played a crucial role in an exciting technical trial. It involved the RNLI’s Innovation Team and several other rescue agencies.

They wanted to test the use of drones and different types of sensors in a search and rescue scenario. So, they put heat packs into our heads, dropped us into the Bristol Channel and found us with thermal imaging cameras. That’s the closest I’ve ever been to having a brain.

An apology

Sometimes I do go awry during local exercises which causes some friendly ribbing among volunteers, especially if a neighbouring station gets to me first. 

I’m out every week of the year with the RNLI College trainers too. I’m RNLI-branded and the trainers always tell the coastguard where I am and when I’m due to be picked up. If they leave me to drift they’ll fit me out with a VHF beacon so they know where I am, even if the trainees don’t. 

But it doesn’t stop the fact that a member of the public might spot me first. Most people are amused but, very occasionally, someone will mistake me for a real person and it might shake them up until realisation sets in. I’m really sorry if that’s happened to you. But I want to assure that I’m not just any old dummy, I’m helping our crews and I’m that’s really important to saving lives. 

James Kilburn, Lifeboat Training Manager, says: ‘If we want to train our volunteers in how to search for missing people, we need to have missing people. We can’t put real people at risk, so manikins are our best option. 

‘Fred is made specifically to help crews develop manual-handling and searching skills so he’s not meant to look much like a person. He’s humanoid in shape but doesn’t have any facial features. The important bit is that he handles like a real person. He flops in a similar way to what an unconscious casualty would. And he’s heavy so we can practice correct lifting techniques, putting him in stretchers and using the double strop recovery system we have on our all-weather lifeboats.

If we’re practising a scenario that includes an aspect of casualty care, we’ll use Fred as a search target and then swap him out for Resusci Annie. Annie’s more realistic for doing medical treatment. She has a full face and allows our crews to practice rescue breaths and chest compressions.’

You can help save lives at sea with a donation today. From kit to crew training to kids’ education, you’ll be making a real difference to our volunteers – and the people they save.

You can help save lives at sea with a donation today. From kit to crew training to kids’ education, you’ll be making a real difference to our volunteers – and the people they save.

Donate today