A Day in the life of an RNLI Volunteer on the Thames

28 Apr 2020

Due to the COVID-19 crisis, the Thames RNLI Lifeboat stations have had to modify their 24/7 coverage of maintaining a SAR (Search and Rescue) capability for the river. Previously this was split into 2 x 12hr shifts, a day shift and a night shift, consisting of at least one full time Helmsman and 2 x volunteers to man the boat per shift. To combat the crisis, the RNLI have moved to a 24hr shifts with set teams to minimise the possible virus exposure to crew.

Senior Consultant, Eamonn O'Callaghan, who currently sits second seat at Chiswick RNLI, tells us of a typical day:

It’s 09:00 and it’s time to kiss the family goodbye, tell my 2 young boys to be good for their mum, as I have to make the two and a half hour journey to Chiswick lifeboat station for my 24hr shift which starts at midday. Luckily the M4 is pretty quiet, thanks to lock down, with most of the traffic being HGVs carrying goods.

I arrive in plenty of time and meet up with the full time Helmsman, who has been on the crew since the station went operational in 2002. He will be in charge of the shift and will helm the boat should we get a “shout”. His priority is the safety of the crew, but today he has two experienced people that he knows he can trust and will work well together. A few minutes later the 3rd crew member turns up and we wait patiently in a separate room for the guys coming off shift to sanitise the station, life jackets, helmets and drysuits that they had used.

At midday, the duty crew hands over to us and after ensuring my drysuit fits and has no defects as well as my life jacket and helmet we sit down for the Helm to give us the SMEAC brief. This will consist of tide times, notices to Mariners (for our operational patch), weather conditions to expect, tasks for the day and roles. As the “2nd seat” I’m responsible for all SAR coms during any tasking, navigation and I’m also the lead Casualty Carer for the shift, meaning that in the event we have a casualty to deal with, I will be the only one treating them as we have to assume they are a positive COVID-19 person, which minimises any infection of the other crew.

Above: The view from Chiswick station (high tide)

Today we are performing the “weekly” boat checks which are much more in depth than the “dailies”. This should keep us busy for a fair few hours of the afternoon.

Above: Echo 08, our duty boat

After getting suited up, 2 of us head down to the jetty where our boat is moored and begin going through the checklist procedures for the “weeklies”. Thorough checks of engine consumables, electrical systems, comms, lines, medical kit, as well as inspection of the boat’s bulkhead and super structure take up a fair amount of time.

Above: The console of the mk2 E-class lifeboat

As we run through the checklist we see 3 x paddleboarders (one with a dog between the owners legs!) getting in their permitted exercise. None of which were wearing any buoyancy aids but it is not our job to judge, we merely advise on what might be a safer option of performing these activities on the water. A little later, a swimmer slowly passes us! Although he is properly kitted up with a fluorescent leashed buoy attached as well as wetsuit, goggles and swim cap, he is unaware the tide is just about to turn and that in 10 minutes he’ll be swimming against a flow of 5kts!

After advising him it might be a better idea to turn around and stick closer to the shoreline, he thanks us and heeds the advice.

It’s now 18:00 and we return to the station to complete some paperwork and get some food down us. It’s a chance also for me to log on and get a couple of hours of SEA work done.

At 21:00, it is suggested that we run through casualty handling procedures that have changed from our SOPs. As the lead CC it’s my responsibility to deal with a casualty ensuring that they are always at a safe distance from the rest of the crew once on board and that I am fully PPE’d up! In addition to my drysuit, life jacket and helmet, I have to don safety glasses, a P3 mask and 2 x surgical gloves. In the practice CPR scenario given to us as an exercise, I wear a “homemade mask” to get a sense for how it will all feel should I have to do it for real.

The RNLI’s crew medical training is on par with an ambulance technician as we carry a comprehensive medical kit which includes 02 and pain relief Entonox gas as well 3 types of stretcher depending on the type of extraction we might encounter.

After an hour or so of talking through the changes to our procedures and completing some exercises, it’s time to try and chill and see if anything interesting is on the TV. I sort out my bed for the night making sure all my kit it in position ready to go if the dreaded bell rings.

Above: My bed for the night

At 23:30, we settle down to watch a horror film. Within minutes, 1 of the crew has called it a day and heads off to his bunk to try and get some shut eye. As I mainly do night shifts, I know that the sleep I get isn’t properly restful as I’m always subconsciously listening out for any radio traffic that might give us a hint that we will get a call and be tasked on a shout.

As the film starts building the tension ready for a proper horror moment the old style telephone bell goes and I leap up from my comfortable position. Within 30 seconds, the threee of us are fully kitted up and running the 100m or so down to the boat getting the engines started, blue lights flashing and readying to release our mooring lines once the Helmsman arrives. Moments later, through the darkness, I hear thudding footsteps running down the jetty towards us. Already I know that there is danger to life purely from the speed at which our Helm is approaching. He gives us the nod to release our lines and as we take our seats we head off down river at maximum speed (45kts).

An hour and a half later, we return to the jetty at Chiswick having successfully rescued the person in distress. The new COVID-19 procedures were followed and I dispose of my mask and gloves and begin de-contaminating the parts of the boat where he came into contact. By the time we de-kit in the station, it is 02:15. Time for some zzzzzzz’s.

Luckily for us, the rest of the night went without incident although we heard our sister station, Tower Lifeboat station in central London, tasked to a couple of incidents.

After some much needed morning coffee and a quick call home to check how my family are, we sit down for a more detailed debrief on how we handled the shout and where improvements could be made. This is an important time, especially if we have had to deal with a traumatic event and can allow some crew to come to terms with what they might have witnessed.

Before you know it it’s time to sanitise the station ready for the next crew to come in and relieve us at midday. Once they have it’s time to say our goodbyes to each other and make the two and a half hour journey back home. During the drive, I contemplate that although the past 24 hours have been arduous, it’s my wife who has had the harder time, juggling having to work from home as well as managing our 7 and 4 year old boys single-handedly during a lock down. Without her, I wouldn’t be able to commit to this unique charitable organisation. Once one of my boys asked me “Are you a hero because you work on the lifeboat saving people daddy?” I told him “No son. It’s mummy who is the true hero!”

The view from Eamonn's Wife...

"Eamonn joined the lifeboat before we had met, so for us as couple, it was something he had always done. When we set up home in Axbridge it was a part of his life he understandably didn’t want to give up and so the boys have grown up with his volunteering as part of our lives. We are all immensely proud of his commitment to the RNLI and the time he spends away from home also makes him more bearable to live with.  The boys often assume he is on the boat even when it’s just a normal working day and have even been looking up Chiswick on the map this week, whilst Daddy was on his shift. It is important to us that the children grow up understanding that lots of services are possible due to volunteers and although it’s not always easy with him being away from home, he wouldn’t be the man or father he is without it. RNLI memorabilia also makes great Father’s Day gifts!" 

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