23 June 2017

Be someone's lifeline: Know how to use a throw bag

We’ve all seen them while walking along the coast or a river: throw bags and liferings. They may seem like simple pieces of public rescue equipment, but for someone who has fallen in the water they are a lifeline. So would you know how to use one?

How to save a life

First, call for help

Before you attempt a rescue, remember that you will always need backup. The casualty may also need urgent medical attention. So do not wait until you have rescued them to make the call.

‘It’s important not to put yourself in danger’
Bridie Appleby-Gunnill
RNLI Community Safety Product Manager
  • Call the emergency services on 999 or 112.
  • Give your location.
  • Describe the problem.
  • Tell them the number of people in danger.
  • Give any additional information that may be useful such as any access issues or hazards.

We cannot stress enough how important it is to put your own safety first. Too many people drown trying to rescue others. Do not put yourself at risk of becoming a casualty too - without you, the person in the water cannot be helped.

‘It’s important not to put yourself in danger,' says RNLI Community Safety Product Manager Bridie Appleby-Gunnill. 'That’s why it’s key that we raise awareness of the risks and of the importance of calling 999 or 112 and asking for the coastguard.

'My mum walks a lot on the coast and when I’m speaking with someone that I love, this is my message - every single time.’

Once help is on the way, you can attempt a rescue - but only if it's safe to do so.

How to use a throw bag

1. Attract their attention

Shout out to the casualty to get their attention. Reassure them that you are trying to help.

Remind them to float on their back to catch their breath. Simple instructions can save a life.

If they are struggling to float tell them:

  • Lean your head back into the water.
  • Breathe deeply to fill your lungs with air.
  • Extend your arms and legs like a starfish.

Once they are floating, tell them you’re going to throw them a line.

Photo: RNLI/Andy Perryman

2. Throw the bag or lifering

Identify a suitable area to bring the casualty ashore. Make sure that you will be safe and secure on this landing area too and that you won’t be pulled into the water. And remember that a casualty is likely to be exhausted, cold and unable to help themselves - ladders can be difficult for them.

Holding onto the throw bag or lifering, point your throwing arm in the direction of the casualty, alert the casualty, then throw the line towards them while holding the tail end of it in your other hand. Aim to get the line to land across their body.

If your first attempt misses, you can redeploy the line quickly. Bring the line back into your hand in a back and forth manner, making short loops. This should allow you to accurately throw the line again.

Photo: RNLI/Andy Perryman

3. Give clear instructions

Shout the following instructions to the casualty:

  • Hold onto the line.
  • Roll onto your back.
  • Put the line over your shoulder.
Photo: RNLI/Andy Perryman

4. Pull on the line

When the casualty makes contact with the line it will become heavy - this is the most dangerous time for a rescuer.

Assume a low stance with firm footing, far enough back from the water's edge that you can’t be pulled in.

Brace yourself and, using both hands, pull the casualty towards you. Just before they reach the side, tell them to roll onto their front so they don’t bang their head.

Never wrap the line around your hand.

Photo: RNLI/Andy Perryman

5. Help them out of the water

Get hold of the casualty and help them out of the water safely. Be aware that they may be cold, wet, heavy and distressed, making them hard to hold on to.

If you can't help them out of the water without putting yourself at risk, shout for help and wait until someone else arrives.

It’s important that anyone who’s been in the water gets immediate medical attention. Water on the lungs can cause secondary drowning, so they will need someone with them for the next 24 hours to keep an eye on them.

Photo: RNLI/Andy Perryman

What if there is no throw bag or lifering?

If you have a long pole, length of pipe or similar, you may be able to reach out to the casualty and pull them ashore.

Do not go into the water yourself, not even into the shallows.

Before you reach out, ensure you are in a stable, secure position and get someone to hold you.

James's story

In 2005, James Clark was on a night out with friends in Kingston upon Thames. In the early hours of the morning they split into two groups - neither had James with them but neither knew. He never made it home. Three days later James’s body was found in the river. Unbeknown to his friends, he had stumbled in the dark and fallen into the water.

James’s death is tragic and it is sadly not isolated. Every year around 190 people lose their lives at the UK and Irish coasts; around half of them never even intended to enter the water. Alcohol and slips, trips and falls are significant contributing factors.

Since James’s death, his mother Andrea Corrie has successfully campaigned for safety measures along that stretch of the River Thames. In the 2-3 years following the installation of a safety barrier and public rescue equipment (PRE) there was just one fatality - a marked reduction from the average of five deaths occurring there every year.

Breaking the drowning chain

The RNLI’s goal is to halve drowning in the UK and Ireland by 2024, and to do so we need to reach the people most at risk and the areas that harbour these hidden dangers.

Last year we saved 558 lives, but we can’t rescue everyone. To prevent drowning, we are working with local communities and businesses to identify the risks and solutions. One of these solutions is to place public rescue equipment in key locations and train people how to use it.

On 31 May, we launched an exciting new partnership with Nicholson’s pubs, which has a network of 78 pubs across the UK and Ireland. As part of the partnership, we’re rolling out a pilot programme at their waterside venues in London and Kent to train bar and security staff on how to use throw bags to save lives when people get into trouble in the water.

Staff at Nicholson's Horniman at Hays pub on the River Thames in London receive RNLI throw bag trainingPhoto: Laura Lewis
Staff at Nicholson's Horniman at Hays pub on the River Thames in London receive RNLI throw bag training

‘The work we’re doing with Nicholson’s is so important,' says Bridie. 'The staff know that the first and best thing they can do is to educate the public about the risks around the water.

‘Secondly, if someone is in the water, they call for help.

'Thirdly, if they then assess they can attempt a rescue safely with their training, they will do it together as a team, behind a protective barrier.'

'It's about behaviour change - not just intervention'

Door supervisor of The Horniman at Hays pub on the River Thames Steve Neville says: ‘I regularly see people leaving the pub after a few drinks then sitting on the railings by the river or stumbling along the path.

‘I now feel more confident in my role as door supervisor in being able to better protect our guests in this busy evening location. I appreciate the additional layer of safety that the RNLI is encouraging us to put in place, and this training has been exceptional.’

Bridie echoes the importance of this approach: ‘What’s so exciting about this community intervention is that they’re receiving training, community talks and resources - it’s the whole behavior change package, not just one intervention.

'This is such a positive new way for the RNLI to be working. And there are so many personal and heartfelt stories; listening to Andrea talk about her son James, you can’t help but be moved.’


Our work with throw bags is dedicated to James. It is the first RNLI pilot programme to be dedicated to the memory of someone who has lost their life to drowning.

Our partnership with Nicholson’s pubs has the potential to be truly life-changing.

That's why we want to share this knowledge and experience far and wide. So please read, save and share this with people you know.

But - above all else - please remember to Respect the Water.