Dying to help : Fatal bystander rescues in Australian coastal environments

Dr Jaz Lawes1, Mr Shane Daw1

1Surf Life Saving Australia, Sydney, Australia


Bystanders who drown attempting a rescue are becoming an increasingly important issue within drowning prevention. In Australia, most of these incidents occur in coastal waterways. This study characterises coastal bystander rescuer fatalities collated in the national coastal fatality database (2004-2019) to guide future public safety interventions involving bystander rescuers. Sixty-seven bystander rescuer fatalities in coastal waterways were reported during the 15-year period, an average of 4.5 per year, which is a significant proportion of the five fatalities previously reported across all Australian waterways.

Most coastal bystander rescuer fatality incidents occurred in New South Wales (49%), at beaches (64%), in regional or remote areas (71%), more than 1 km from the nearest lifesaving service (78%), during summer (45%), in the afternoon (72%), in the presence of rip currents (73%),  and did not involve the use of flotation devices to assist rescue (97%).  The majority of coastal bystander rescuer victims were Australian residents (88%) born in Australia/Oceania (68%), males (81%), aged between 30-44 years old (36%), were visitors to the location (55%), either family (69%) or friends (15%) of the rescuee(s), and were attempting to rescue someone younger than 18 years old (64%).

Our results suggest safety intervention approaches should target males, parents and carers visiting beach locations in regional locations and should focus on the importance of flotation devices when enacting a rescue and further educating visitors about the rip current hazard. Future research should examine the psychology of bystander rescue situations and evaluate the effectiveness of different safety intervention approaches.


Jaz is an impact ecologist interested in human interactions with the environment. Her role as national researcher at Surf Life Saving Australia, includes t coordinating a diverse portfolio of coastal safety research projects.  Jaz believes education and awareness strategies driven by evidence-based research are the most effective tool to transform attitudes and change behaviours to enhance public safety within our incredible coast.