East Sussex fire boss with ‘harrowing’ drowning experience leads water safety forum

The CEO and chief fire officer at East Sussex Fire & Rescue is leading a national forum around water safety – after nearly drowning as a teenager.

Friday, 25th June 2021, 1:13 pm

Dawn Whittaker is now the new chair for the National Water Safety Forum (NWSF), a network of more than 50 organisations that work to reduce water-related deaths and associated harm in the UK.

Ms Whittaker had a personal ‘harrowing’ experience of nearly drowning when she was 16, a statement from the service revealed.

The statement said, “She was rescued by friends from drowning in a river in mid-Wales. Despite being a strong swimmer, and being familiar with the location, Dawn got into difficulty after her foot got caught in underwater branches.”

Dawn Whittaker. Photo from East Sussex Fire & Rescue. SUS-210625-130359001

Ms Whittaker said, “On that day, I have never forgotten how lucky I was to be with people who knew what to do when someone is in danger in the water. As I grew up I discovered that sadly, not everyone is so fortunate and I decided I wanted to get more involved in helping save lives.

“We have a lot to do – in 2020, there were 254 fatal accidental drownings in the UK.

“I know from my service as a fire officer that prevention is always better than a cure. This ethos also underpins my advocacy for water safety and will continue to guide the work of the National Water Safety Forum as we seek greater collaboration to achieve our shared goal: safer inland and coastal waters.”

The forum has launched a new campaign #RespectTheWater to provide life-saving advice to the public.

Ms Whittaker has been part of the forum’s coordinating group since 2013 where she also represented the National Fire Chief’s Council. She was involved in the group that helped develop the UK Drowning Prevention Strategy and previously served as the chair of the board of trustees for the Royal Lifesaving Society.

The forum was established in 2004 following a government review into water safety.

Hosted by The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), it creates a ‘one-stop shop’ for the prevention of drowning and water safety harm in the UK.

Carlene McAvoy, leisure safety manager at RoSPA, said, “I speak for everyone at RoSPA when I say we are thrilled that Dawn has been appointed chair of the National Water Safety Forum. I have had the opportunity to collaborate with Dawn through my work at RoSPA and involvement with Water Safety Scotland.

“I know that Dawn has the drive, passion and leadership skills to push the Forum forward to meet our objective of halving the number of accidental drownings in the UK by 2026.”