A large number of people drown in our waters every year, and tragically, some drown while trying to rescue others.

Fewer people would be lost if they understood the Four Rs of bystander rescue - Recognise, Respond, Rescue and Revive.

Between 1980 and last year, 81 people drowned in New Zealand while trying to rescue others. Of these, most (80 per cent) were male, and Maori (33 per cent) and Pasifika (12 per cent) people were over-represented. All rescue fatalities occurred in open waters, with beaches (54 per cent) and rivers (22 per cent) being the most frequent sites of drowning.

In Australia, Richard Franklin and John Pearn have analysed the loss of life while trying to rescue children in their study, "Drowning for Love. The Aquatic Victim Instead of Rescuer Syndrome."


Last month a man and his nephew drowned off the Hawkes Bay coast while trying to save a young girl who made her own way to shore. What was supposed to be a weekend of family celebrations became a double tragedy.

This will keep happening until we learn safer methods of rescuing people in distress.

While many rescue attempts appear instinctive, the risk of adding to the drowning fatality list is great for those not trained in lifesaving techniques.

A group of drowning prevention experts with extensive lifeguard experience from Watersafe Auckland have devised simple guidelines to minimise that risk.

Using the Four Rs:

Recognise - a would-be rescuer would assess victim distress, the urgency and the dangers in a rescue attempt and, importantly, look for a flotation device.

Respond - the first priority is to stop the drowning process by providing flotation to the victim while still assessing the dangers of a rescue and the urgency. This is especially true if the victim cannot be immediately removed from the water. It is at this stage that the bystander should send for help.

Rescue - a land- or craft-based rescue minimises risk for the rescuer but, if a water-based rescue is necessary, a non-contact rescue using flotation is the safest method.

Revive - this phase covers the possible need for CPR and other medical assistance as required.

New Zealanders struggle to understand the areas of Recognise and Respond.

A nationwide water safety survey of New Zealand youth found 35 per cent considered they had no rescue ability, and 59 per cent expressed doubts about their ability to perform a deep-water rescue.

A recently published Auckland study of 415 people at last March's Pasifika Festival suggests many lack an understanding in water safety.

The results suggest few respondents would meet the demands of supporting and transporting a struggling victim to safety in the water without putting themselves at risk of drowning.

Men may be at greater risk of drowning because of their confidence (rather than competence) in being able to perform a rescue or get themselves out of trouble without assistance.

Significantly more men than women (males 55 per cent, females 40 per cent) indicated they would jump in to save the victim.

Overall, almost half (47 per cent) of respondents said they would dive in and rescue the victim.

Women were more likely than males to seek help from lifeguards (females 65 per cent, males 54 per cent) or call emergency services (females 47 per cent, males 44 per cent).

The least frequently chosen response, getting flotation to the victim, (30 per cent) would most likely be, in many open water rescue situations, the most effective immediate response.

More than one third (37 per cent) of those who could not swim 100m - almost two thirds of the would-be rescuers - said they would dive to rescue someone.

This suggests that the least capable would-be rescuers may be at greater risk of drowning by failing to recognise their limitations.

The findings provide evidence of questionable readiness to respond in a rescue role as a bystander confronted with a drowning emergency.

Despite a desire to respond in a rescuer role, many people may lack the physical competency and knowledge to safely attempt a rescue.

While it is hard to imagine not following your gut instincts and trying to rescue someone in need, especially a family member, would-be rescuers need to remember the four Rs of Recognise, Respond, Rescue and Revive if they are going to attempt a rescue safely.

Dr Kevin Moran is a principal lecturer in health and physical education in the school of curriculum and pedagogy at the Auckland University faculty of education. He has been a surf lifeguard for almost 50 years and still patrols Muriwai Beach near Auckland.