The formation of the suicide-prevention group Marinewatch that has saved 156 lives

Established in December 2012, the suicide-prevention group Marinewatch has worked tirelessly every single night for the past six years. During this time, they have dealt with a total of 334 incidents, 156 of which were suicide interventions.

Wexford town has been well known for its high suicide rate –– so much so, that it became known nationally as a ‘suicide blackspot’.  As Mayor of Wexford, Frank Staples, put it “Wexford is in crisis”. Wexford Bridge has been a regular spot for these tragic events.

After a particularly harrowing few months that saw three deaths in close succession in October and November 2012 at Wexford Bridge, Frank Flanagan, founder of Marinewatch, felt something needed to be done about this epidemic, rather than ‘just expressing shock and sympathy at each death and doing nothing further to prevent it”. Frank decided that person would be him.

It was through his part in creating the online campaign that fought government cutbacks of the Irish Coast Guard’s ‘Rescue 117’ helicopter base in Waterford (which gained both international recognition and 25,000 signatures, forcing the Government into “an unprecedented U-Turn” on their decision) that Frank met a lot of key contacts in the Coast Guard and emergency services. He not only became friends with the helicopter crew but also many members of the gardaí, ambulance and rescue services crew.

In December 2012, Frank decided to put these contacts to “good use”, calling a “private meeting” between them. He invited the mayor, local councillors, the gardaí, the National Ambulance Service, the Irish Coast Guard, the Civil Defence, Waterford Marine Search & Rescue, the Order of Malta Ambulance Corps, the Fire Service and the RNLI amongst others. To his “astonishment” the room was “packed to capacity and even more chairs had to be brought in”.

It was through this very meeting that Wexford Marinewatch was born. Following subsequent meetings, a management team was formed. This included one representative from each emergency service, who would “provide advice and expertise” to the organisation. These people still sit on the board of management today and continue to “guide Marinewatch on a daily basis”.

The team developed a concept that was central to their mission of suicide-prevention. Frank describes this concept as straightforward:

“Train volunteers and put them out on the street to patrol the bridge and ‘known’ suicide blackspots, where they could intercept these people in time and offer them help and support whilst getting them to safety.”

This community of co-operating voluntary emergency services and community volunteers is the first of its kind that Wexford has seen, and possibly Ireland too. Therefore, this new concept came with some “understandable” scepticism from the public. However, Frank says that once they heard that the organisation was being “driven from the top-down by key players in the emergency services”, it gained huge credibility.

The next thing to do was advertise for volunteers and it was a huge success, gaining an overwhelming response from the public. Although “eager to get feet on the street before another life was lost”, Frank says that the newly elected professionals “rightly” pointed out that risk assessments, health & safety, garda vetting and volunteer training were all required before anyone was “exposed” to a patrol.

The patrol consists of four or six volunteers, sometimes reaching to eight, volunteers who patrol the bridge and quay area of the town, wearing high visibility vests and life jackets. Their remit, as Frank put it, is to “identify anyone who may be distressed, in a bad place, contemplating suicide, or even just putting themselves at risk near the water edge”.

Frank says that apart from suicide, there are drunk revellers who “unwittingly” put themselves in danger near the water. This has “regularly” led to Marinewatch recovering people from the water who have accidentally fallen in, using a rescue rope or ring buoy. As a rule, all teams stay in “constant contact” by radio and carry “several rescue devices” including first aid kits and rescue ropes. As the patrols are land based, and do not enter the water, there are strict procedure that are “tried and tested” which include alerting the Coast Guard, RNLI and emergency services.

In order to create a suitable and effective patrol timetable, research on times and days where people in the past had taken their own lives in the area was carried out by the team, Frank says, allowing them to identify certain times and days where the patrols needed to concentrate on the most.

Like any charity, funding is a very important part of how Marinewatch function. Given the failings in the Health Service and the lack of support for mental health in Wexford, it is “nothing short of a disgrace” that Marinewatch “do not receive any grand aid or funding of any description” from the government, Frank says.

Every cent needed to operate comes from the local community, local authority and donations from other similar organisations involved in suicide prevention. The first of the fundraisers six years ago was a “huge success” and the efforts from community groups and individuals who held these fundraisers in the charity’s name, and who continue to do so, is very much appreciated by the Marinewatch team.

There are many expenses involved in the scheme including vehicles, diesel, searchlights, throw-bags, first aid, training, foul-weather clothing, radios, maintenance, storage, and more, all necessary for saving lives. Help is always needed and is critical to survive, therefore assistance from the public is always welcomed and much appreciated, whether through fundraising, donating or volunteering.

Public support from the community continues to keep the wheels turning and is hugely appreciated by the team – from the complimentary tea, coffee and biscuits that the Talbot Hotel and the Riverbank Hotel provide for the patrolling volunteers every night for the past six years, to the patrol vehicles donated by Wexford Volkswagen and the local authority who pay for insurance and energy bills.

Frank believes that without a doubt that it is this generosity and support that drives the organisation.

It is no wonder with Marinewatch’s success story and outstanding results in the last six years that it is classed as one of the best assets ever created in the Wexford community. In 2017, they became a registered charity with the new Charity Regulator and released a new handbook outlining the process and training for volunteers, and in all have won three awards for the work they do, the most recent being the Special Recognition Award by the Lifesaving Foundation.

For the first four years of operation, “not one single life was lost” in Wexford Harbour. This was a stark contrast from the “16 people a year” who were entering the water prior to 2013.  Frank speaks sadly about the lives lost in 2017, one due to a tragic accident on the river, and a further two deaths that occurred “further up the river”.

Having dealt with a total of 334 incidents, including numerous people having been safely removed from the water, Franks says that some incidents are “not necessarily self-harm related”, sometimes it is the case that a person requires First Aid, or someone endangering themselves near the water.

Many will be taking time off over the Christmas period, but not MarineWatch, who will continue to save lives.

Marinewatch will continue to tackle the problem with suicide not only in Wexford, but around Ireland, as Frank says they have made approaches to other towns and cities in Ireland in the hope of introducing similar patrols in those areas and will be “happy to mentor and assist the setting up of a similar organisation elsewhere”.

This is because Frank is passionate that these services are vital:

“Our services are needed now more than ever, and we are filling a void … Marinewatch continues to grow and are currently seeking further recruits for 2019. More details and an application form can be found at: www.wexfordmarinewatch.com/volunteering

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