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Keeping it clean

When you sign up to crew a lifeboat, you do it for the buzz, for the camaraderie, and ultimately to help your community and save lives. Cleaning is not high on the list. But it became a way of life in 2020.

A crew member washing down his PPE

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

We’re all familiar with the routine by now. Hands, face, space. Keeping 2m away from anyone we don’t live with. Checking the government website for the latest guidelines before planning anything.

The RYA’s advice for those escaping to the water were (and, at the time of writing, remain) to be considerate and be conservative. To be prepared, to know our limits, to keep in touch, and to be mindful of others – including the impact of our actions on the RNLI and other emergency services. More specifically, to wash our hands, to respect social distancing, and to check local restrictions.

We were sensible, mixing in bubbles and wiping down surfaces. And for the most part we still got to enjoy being on the water, though often from behind a face mask and with a faint whiff of bleach on the salty air.

Challenging times

But spare a thought for the lifeboat crews. They don’t get to choose whom they mix with at sea. Casualty care, with its close contact and bodily fluids, is often part of the job. And it’s difficult to pull someone from the water while staying 2m away.

Things get dirty. And it was the RNLI’s responsibility to give clear guidance on decontamination to the brave volunteers who’ve been taking on even more risk by going out to save others in a pandemic.

So here’s how we’ve been doing it. And keeping the volunteers safe while maintaining the rescue service.

Touch screens on lifeboats now need to be sanitised between users

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Touch screens on lifeboats now need to be sanitised between users

Double the shouts

‘It was a really, really busy season,’ says Tramore Helm Fergal McGrath. ‘We had a lot of new water users. With soccer and rugby cancelled and the weather good, there were a lot of people looking for something new to do – and they discovered the water. During the early part of the restrictions, we had double the usual amount of shouts.’

The first line of defence is to prevent contamination in the first place. At the RNLI, we’ve been using PPE for years, meaning lifejackets, helmets – the gear crews wear to protect themselves.

Suddenly, in spring 2020, PPE was headline news. And the volunteers needed a whole new level of protection: facemasks and disposable nitrile gloves.

A crew member wearing a disposable face mask and gloves

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

A guide to decontamination

Every shout is different, and a one-size-fits-all approach to decontamination was never going to work. But busy crews needed some simple, thorough guidance – to keep things clean, first and foremost, but also to give them peace of mind and confidence.

So we gave them three levels of contamination, and a process to follow for each of those levels.

1. No contamination

Training exercises, and shouts that don’t bring the crew within 2m of a casualty.

In these cases, a wash-down with soap and water is enough, as it was in the pre-Covid-19 days. Facemasks and gloves can go in the regular rubbish bin.

2. Minor contamination

If the crew come within 2m of a casualty, or if kit is contaminated with any bodily fluid that isn’t blood (for example vomit).

Any surface contamination is removed with paper towels, soap and water. Then helmets are dunked in a tub of disinfectant solution and hosed off. The crew members’ lifejackets and their drysuits or foul-weather gear can be sponged down with this solution, before being hosed down too. The lifeboat is hosed down in the usual way, and any surfaces that have been contaminated or touched are cleaned with disinfectant wipes. Facemasks and gloves are treated as clinical waste and disposed of accordingly.

3. Major contamination

If kit comes into contact with blood.

Any surface contamination is removed with paper towels, soap and water. On return to station, helmets, lifejackets, drysuits and foul-weather gear are all removed and dunked in a stronger disinfectant solution. They are left aside for 5 minutes before being hosed down. Again, disposable kit (facemasks and gloves) are treated as clinical waste.

Swanage crew members coming back after a shout, wearing face masks

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

‘There’s a lot more work now when we come back from a shout,’ says Angle Coxswain Lewis Creese. ‘But that’s just a normal way of life at the moment. The crew have adjusted well and we all understand why we have to do it. It’s the new normal.’

In 2020, the RNLI bought 2.4 million gloves, 500,000 disinfectant tablets, 695,000 facemasks, 13,000 litres of disinfectant and 4,700 litres of hand sanitiser. Our lifesavers, and the people they’ve rescued, owe thanks to generous supporters like you who helped fund this unexpected extra need.

Wider consequences

In Tramore, as well helming the lifeboat and his job as a teacher, Fergal is an instructor at the local diving club. So he’s seen the impact of the pandemic from the perspective of watersports professionals too.

The club can usually take 12 people out on a single dive boat, but that was reduced to 6 – distanced and wearing masks. The club has inevitably taken a financial hit from that, and it’s led to delays in divers getting their qualifications this year. But it’s the unexpected consequences that stop us in our tracks.

‘Normally, your buddies help you pull your diving gear back into the boat,’ Fergal says. ‘But now you have to do it yourself. It’s heavy. Especially for our older divers. It’s difficult to watch people struggle and not be allowed to help them.’

Back at the station, it’s quiet.

In Angle, full-time Coxswain Lewis does his work at the station in the morning, then goes to work from home to allow Mechanic Adam Stringer to do his thing safely in the afternoon.

The crew assemble outside for shouts and socially distanced training exercises. New signage advises on a one-way route around the station, and where to find sanitiser. The usual sounds of chat and tea-making have fallen silent. And in the kit room, you can smell the disinfectant.

Volunteers at West Kirby clean their lifeboat with special care

Photo: David Edwards

Volunteers at West Kirby clean their lifeboat with special care

Cleaning boats

Like you, RNLI crews have always hosed down their lifeboats after going to sea as – even before Covid-19 – it was a hostile environment, with harsh salt and potential contaminants from injured casualties.

These days, crews also use disinfectant wipes on areas of the boat that have been contaminated with bodily fluids or have come into contact with casualties, and frequent touch points like touch screens door handles and tracker balls.

Our boats are tough, but every boat is different. If you’ve got beautiful teak decking, for example, you’ll need to be very careful that your disinfectant doesn’t damage the surface. Check the manufacturer’s labels on any new products you buy to protect yourself and your boating family.

Your safety

The RYA and the RNLI advise you to consider:

  • whether your activity complies with government regulations for social distancing and travel
  • whether your vessel has been maintained properly and is seaworthy, reducing the risk of needing external assistance
  • whether all emergency equipment is in working order and the crew know how to use it
  • using the RYA SafeTrx app, which can monitor your journey and can alert emergency services, if needed
  • anything else that may increase the potential demand on emergency services, including experience levels and prevailing conditions.

Keep an eye on for the latest updates.