IT is often said that “Glasgow made the Clyde, and the Clyde made Glasgow”.
In the early 13th century, our city rose from its waters to become the largest in Scotland. Originally shallow enough to cross in a horse and cart at low tide, it was deepened into the modern navigation and harbour by merchants seeking to transport goods, and latterly by shipbuilders to construct some of the greatest feats of naval architecture ever built.
Glasgow owes a great debt to the Clyde. Without the waterway we would never have become the greatest industrial city in Britain, second only to London. Generations of families like my own would never have had the opportunity to work in industries of which we were so proud and the world may never have seen engineering achievements like the steam engine.
But beneath its waters, there is a dark side to the Clyde. Decades of neglect and a lack of dredging by the privatised port authority has resulted in a river that is murky, dangerous and in some instances, deadly.
This week was Drowning Prevention Week, an awareness raising week that aims to educate people about water safety and drowning prevention, draw attention to the dangers of open water, and equip people of all ages with the essential skills and knowledge to stay safe in and around water.
And many Glaswegians know the heartache that comes with losing a loved one to a drowning incident.
One such family are the Spiers, who I first met back in 2017. Margaret and Duncan lost their son Christopher in 2016 when he was just 28. In a tragic accident he fell from Glasgow’s Tradeston Bridge and despite the best efforts of police who managed to find and throw a lifebelt to him, Christopher drowned.
Margaret and Duncan have campaigned to increase awareness of the dangers of open water, cold water shock and to install improved water safety equipment ever since through Christopher’s Saving Lives Campaign.
The Spiers Family have now co-designed innovative floating safety ropes that are brightly coloured and longer than those traditionally found attached to buoyancy aids ensuring that they can be used more than once to throw safety equipment to someone who finds themselves in distress in the water, a measure which may well have saved their own son’s life.
To date, the simple measures introduced following their dedicated campaigning are estimated to have saved the lives of more than 10 people who have fallen into the Clyde – an achievement they should be incredibly proud of.
But the reality is, we need more than improved safety equipment; we need dedicated 24-hour search and rescue cover on the river. Last week I was contacted by firefighters who informed me that proposed cuts by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service will mean that 24-hour rescue provision on the Clyde is now at risk.
If rubber stamped, the proposal would see Polmadie’s dedicated boat crew removed from the station and replaced with a dual crewed approach. Consequently, in addition to the potential 15 job losses, rather than having dedicated 24-hour boat cover, there will only be one crew at Polmadie to respond to fire and water rescue incidents simultaneously.
Shockingly, if fire appliances operating out of Polmadie and Knightswood are both at fire calls, there would be no cover on the River Clyde whatsoever.
With 22 rescues conducted by the dedicated boat crew in 2022 alone, and many more incidents coming to a safe conclusion thanks to their attendance, it is unthinkable that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service would see this as a provision able to be discarded due to budget pressures.
There is no price that can be put on human life, just ask the family and friends of anyone who has lost a loved one in circumstances that could have been avoided.
That is why I urged the First Minister to instruct the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, in this week of all weeks, to scrap these ill-judged and poorly thought-out proposals. While I am grateful that he agreed to look at the detail, I won’t hold my breath awaiting a change in the final decision.
Having written to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, it is also aware of my grave concern at the risk these proposals run of exacerbating the already exponential increase in water related fatalities we have seen in recent years.
It cannot be right that in 2023, Scotland’s biggest city with the third longest river in the country does not have the ability to provide 24-hour rescue cover on the waterway. Times are undoubtedly hard, budgets are increasingly stretched, and our public realm is slowly in decline, but there is no excuse for deprioritising safety.
We often hear that the first duty of any government is to keep its citizens safe and its country secure.
A tragic accident like the one that befell the Spiers family in 2016 could happen to any of us. Without life saving measures, without dedicated 24-hour rescue cover, and without an increase in public awareness, it cannot be said that this government is keeping us, its citizens, safe.
That simply cannot be allowed to happen and in Drowning Prevention Week, the Scottish Government, alongside the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, should unequivocally agree to keep the lifesaving boat crew at Glasgow’s Polmadie Fire Station.
You can read my column on the Glasgow Times website here: Paul Sweeney: Ditch the cuts to river rescue cover in our city | Glasgow Times