RNLI award for lifeguards who rescue 100 people from floods

A team of lifeguards in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, has received the first international award for bravery from the RNLI after they rescued more than 100 people from a flooded village.
Seasafe lifeguards with RNLI award

Photo: RNLI/Harrison Bates

(L-R) Lifeguards Sukkur, Kamrun, Sefat, Osman, Kamal and Siru with their RNLI award.

When severe floods hit Ramu in July 2015, families were trapped with no way of calling for help. Newborn babies and unwell elderly people were among those stranded.

‘Two people came up to us on Shugunda Beach, asking for help because their family had been trapped there since the previous evening,’ says Lifeguard Supervisor Sefat. ‘After hearing the problem, we tried to call the Fire Service but the network was not working. It was raining heavily and there was also a high tide adding to the floods, so our lifeguard team decided to go and help them.’

The call for help - and an unlikely lifeboat

Monsoon rains had set in and the beach was very quiet, so eight of the lifeguards decided to attempt a rescue, despite it being inland and in unfamiliar, unpredictable waters. They grabbed rescue boards, rescue tubes and lifejackets, and headed to Ramu. They also took an unlikely bit of kit – an inflatable beach dinghy from a supermarket chain – which RNLI trainers had taken out to Bangladesh the previous November.

Just that month the lifeguards had received their first flood rescue training, having no idea it would be called into action the very next rainy season.

‘We took out a couple of inflatable beach dinghies, because they’re cheap and easy to pack down,’ explains David Whiddon, a flood rescue trainer in the RNLI’s International team.

‘We used them to teach how to paddle through floodwater and make a floating rescue platform. We left the dinghies in Cox’s Bazar, little knowing one would be involved in rescuing so many people.’

'Most of the people were people were standing on the rooftops'

Sefat still remembers the scene that met him that day: ‘We saw water everywhere. Most of the houses were underwater. Most of the people were standing on the rooftops of their houses. They were panicked.’

‘They were so happy to be rescued and thanked us. They said we were the blessings of Almighty,’ he adds.

‘Obviously an inflatable isn’t a recommended piece of kit, but when resources are limited and lives are at risk, you have to be resourceful,’ says David Whiddon. ‘The training is as much about keeping yourself safe as rescuing other people. In the footage you can see them using ropes to negotiate the fast-flowing water, and using the flow to move steadily to safety.’

At a recent ceremony at the lifeguard base in Cox’s Bazar, the whole lifeguarding community turned out to receive a framed certificate of thanks from the RNLI’s Chief Executive, Paul Boissier. It reads:

The RNLI desires to acknowledge with warm appreciation the outstanding effort by CIPRB SeaSafe Lifeguards of Cox’s Bazar in rescuing over one hundred people and saving many lives during the floods in Ramu, Bangladesh, in July 2015.

'They've essentially used a beach toy to carry out a massive rescue'

‘We were surprised as well as happy. We never thought that our rescue would be recognised with a bravery award from our partners at the RNLI. It will inspire us to continue in future,’ says Sefat.

‘If the lifeguards had not attempted a rescue that day, many people would have died,’ says the team’s manager, Imteaz Ahmed. ‘This award means their courage is recognised everywhere.’

The RNLI has been working in partnership with  the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research Bangladesh (CIPRB) since 2012 to develop the SeaSafe lifeguard service at Cox’s Bazar. It’s an area where strong tides, surf and rip currents have claimed the lives of locals and tourists from across Bangladesh.

‘The first time I saw that footage, I thought, wow! that’s amazing how they’ve essentially used a beach toy to carry out a massive rescue,’ says RNLI Programme Manager Darren Williams, who has helped develop the SeaSafe service. ‘They went above and beyond their roles as beach lifeguards – but ultimately they’ve shown that with a bit of ingenuity you can adapt your lifesaving skills to anything.’