The 'howl' every Coastguard knows

The tears come with recalling the tragic memory. 
The memory of the moment he realised his brother was gone.
The moment his anguish spilled out into a ‘howl’ of despair on the phone to Alex.

It’s nearly always the same sound, she says,
 when they ‘realise it is too late to save their loved one’ as the ‘grief of it rips through you’.

Almost every Coastguard officer has heard it. And never want to hear or experience such agony again.

But they will.

So, to highlight the devastating effect of drowning on families and communities, one of our experienced officers recounted her worst day in the job.

Senior Coastal Operations Officer Alex Dodge told us of the time she answered a 999 call and was faced with a panicked man, whose brother was in ‘real, real trouble’ in the water.

He did not make it.

And Alex was on the phone when it happened.

The incident happened in a remote part of Scotland                                Picture: Tom Ebbens

“One tragic death has such huge knock-on effects,” she said. “Drowning hurts so many. I’ve lost someone very close and I understand the grief of losing a loved one.

“I knew how hard it was going to be for him. I would imagine for many that have experienced a sudden death, there are a lot of questions about why and a lot of blaming of yourself; there are a lot of knock-on effects.

“I often do still wonder how he’s doing. It would have been the worst moment of his life – and I shared it with him.

“It’s really just awful, just dreadful and people don’t realise.”

She spoke of her experience of this terrible drowning, to underline its impact in the hope that others can avoid the same fate.

“I took a 999 call and there was a man on the phone in complete and utter panic,” she said. “I couldn’t get any sense out of him, he was incoherent.

“I knew instantly that something was very wrong, the panic was too real, and that I needed to find out where he was and what was wrong quickly.

“It probably only took two or three minutes to get that information, but it felt like a very long time when you know that every second counts.

“And then when I did find out where they were, my heart sank, as they were in one of the most remote lochs in the north of Scotland. Help was more than just a few minutes away.”

Alex signalled to her operational colleagues, who quickly stepped forward to coordinate the sending of teams and the Coastguard helicopter, so she could focus on helping the man whose sibling had been pulled from the water gravely ill.

“I was talking to him and reassuring him as much as I could,” Alex, who has spent 14 of her 21 years with the Coastguard working in the operations rooms – where 999 calls come in and rescues are coordinated, said.

“Making sure he knew that help was coming and trying to get him to administer some first aid.

“Then the howl comes.

“There’s a particular howl that comes out when they realise it is too late to save their loved one, a howl that you can never forget. The grief of it rips through you.

“It stays with you.”

She said she realised she was ‘losing’ both the casualty and the caller and needed to do more than just talk, while help was on its way.

She explained that, as a trained first aider with expert knowledge of how to perform CPR, she was able to talk the brother through the procedure.

“It’s very unusual for us (the Coastguard) to do this, but I got him to do CPR on his brother,” she said. “It’s unusual as we are not the ambulance service and we don’t take as many 999 calls directly. But he needed to do something, to try to save his brother but also himself – if he’d gone into shock, we’d have had two victims for certain.

“It’s a very hard thing to do CPR for even a short time, and he was having to do it for a long time while the teams got there. It was so hard to keep him going.

“I then heard the teams arrive and I hung up the call.

“I found out that they weren’t able to save him. But I somehow knew, the howl had already told me he was gone.”

She was, understandably, sent home after the call, unable to finish her shift – as the team recognised how difficult the call had been. 

“Recounting it is really hard,” she said. “It brings back some really tough emotions; I wonder ‘did I miss something?’, ‘could I have done more?’, ‘could I have done something different?’. But I don’t think I could have done. His brother was already gone by the time I got the call.”

Alex said that the two had followed HM Coastguard safety advice and the man’s death was a true tragedy but that, sadly, this was so often not the case.

“Wear a lifejacket,” she said. “So often we see such avoidable deaths, where a lifejacket is all that separates them between life and death. When people don’t follow, or ignore, basic safety advice or just switch off to the dangers of the water, disaster can strike.

“You want to look back on holidays with fun memories, remembering one of your best times, not your worst.

“And we, the Coastguard, want to smile as we watch you safely enjoying the water, not crying with you as we remember your worst times.”

For more information about water safety, check out ➡️ our summer safety advice

For more about this year's World Drowning Prevention Day, visit ➡️ The National Water Safety Forum website

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