The RNLI has, for the first time, published figures for the work of its volunteer crews in the English Channel, revealing that the RNLI was tasked and launched 290 times during 2022 to incidents involving men, women and children making the perilous journey across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in small, overcrowded and unseaworthy boats.

This lifesaving work, without judgement or agenda, has received more coverage than any other area of their work, however the charity stresses that the figure represents only 3% of the total number of lifeboat launches for the whole of the RNLI last year.

RNLI Chief Executive, Mark Dowie, said: ‘We are extremely proud of all our volunteer lifeboat crews throughout the UK, Ireland and Channel Islands and that very much includes those working in challenging circumstances in the south-east of England.

‘We have never released these figures before, but they illustrate clearly that our charity’s work in the Channel is genuinely lifesaving.

‘Sadly we know there have been incidents in the Channel which have resulted in deaths, but without the brave actions of our crews, who are ready to answer their pagers day or night, 365 days a year, we can be certain there would have been more.

‘The RNLI is unashamed and makes no apology for staying committed to and focused on the purpose we were created for, nearly 200 years ago – to save lives at sea.’

The RNLI is tasked and coordinated in the UK by HM Coastguard. If someone is in trouble in the sea, and the RNLI is tasked, the charity will launch to help them without judgement, as its crews have been doing since 1824.

Through working closely with its volunteers and staff in the south-east of England, the RNLI has developed and tested new mass rescue techniques and equipment which will help crews to save lives in the Channel. It is also hoped to deploy the equipment and share the learnings across many more of the RNLI’s 238 lifeboat stations as well with other search and rescue organisations around the world.

New equipment already in use includes inflatable horseshoe life rings and translation cards to aid communication with people from a variety of different countries.

The latest piece of rescue equipment under development is an inflatable platform known as ‘sea stairs’ which in recent testing were found to significantly increase the speed at which large numbers of people can be recovered from the water and brought onboard an all-weather lifeboat.

Head of Lifeboats Simon Ling said: ‘Potentially, this is a game-changing piece of lifesaving equipment, which we hope to roll out, not just to our crews operating in the Channel but also to other RNLI crews around the coast of the UK and Ireland.

‘We have simulated different mass rescue scenarios and the sea stairs enable our crews to recover large numbers of people from the water at high speed – which in a rescue situation could be the difference between life and death.

‘The RNLI is a world-leading search and rescue organisation with a proud history of innovation, and we have been working with our crews to develop and provide the very best practical and emotional support.

‘The new equipment and procedures may have been developed for use in mass casualty scenarios in the Channel, but they have potentially widespread lifesaving application across the RNLI – and worldwide – for responding to any incident involving large numbers of casualties, such as a passenger ferry which is sinking or on fire.

‘This kind of innovation is only possible because we have listened to the challenges our crews face in this demanding search and rescue environment and worked together on new ways we can support our teams to ensure they have the best and most suitable care, protection, equipment, and training available.

‘The sea stairs are still in development but, we believe, have the potential to save lives not just in the Channel but around the entire UK and Ireland coastlines and will also be of great interest to our search and rescue partners around the world.’

Dungeness Coxswain Stuart Adams said: ‘I joined the RNLI for one reason and that’s to help people and save lives. Whatever the circumstances, whatever the nationality, it doesn’t matter to me, we are there to save lives and that’s what we do.

‘For incidents involving numerous casualties in the water we had to come up with something we could use to speed things up and we came up with the sea stairs to make it a lot quicker to pull people out of the water.

‘Without them it’s very difficult getting casualties out of the water but, with them, crew can literally kneel, reach, grab and slide the casualties on.’

Son, and volunteer Coxswain Jason Adams added: ‘Some of the kit has been used and the horseshoes have proved to be very effective. They save lives. Without them, there’s definitely a few people who wouldn’t be here today.’

Image shows RNLI crews testing the new ‘sea stairs’ – Image Credit: RNLI/Nathan Williams

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