Diary of a volunteer RNLI press officer: acronyms, tea and tragedy

This week, we begin a new series following the journey of RNLI trainee press officer Roz Ashton, in her own words, as she begins her training and explains why she volunteered. Ashton has lived around the world, worked in advertising and sailed across the Atlantic.

RNLI volunteer Lifeboat press officer Roz Ashton begins her training (pic credit: Sarah Weal)
RNLI volunteer Lifeboat press officer Roz Ashton begins her training (pic credit: Sarah Weal)

A tweet from RNLI Newhaven – which my husband shared with me, out of the blue – sought applications for a volunteer lifeboat press officer (LPO). Intriguing, I thought.

I reflected back on my touch-and-go dinghy days on the Thames at Strand-on-the-Green.

Chiswick RNLI had recently begun operations and were well placed for a potential launch to save me from my various misadventures, including an undignified mast-wedging beneath Kew Bridge.

Disaster was averted on that occasion by a quick-thinking and more experienced river sailor. It was a wonder that I hadn’t already met a yellow-clad crew.

A keen water enthusiast, I was. An authority on water safety, I was not.

The fact that I had no actual press experience didn’t put me off from applying for the role.

It was instantly recognisable as the opportunity I needed to reinvent my sojourned career-self, bid a confident farewell to the world of advertising and enrol on a new adventure into the heart of a community; a skip from home in the direction of the sea.

A reasonably thorough application and interview process ensued and I got the gig.

I began to meet the team. The out-going LPO needed to free up a little time for his day job and young family, but continues nonetheless as crew – an indication of the wonderful, committed people I would be getting to know.

A sea of acronyms

So far, we haven’t even got close to perils at sea. More terrifying is the unfathomable world of the acronym into which I have been launched: ILB, ALB, MOB, LOM, LTC, LAT, LTC, ALM are just a sample.

There’s something reassuringly sturdy, if a little rigid, about an organisation to the scale of the RNLI.

You can be sure to discover a system for everything – and rightly so, because it’s imperative for safety and good operational practice when lives are on the line.

Nonetheless, this is a big adjustment for me, having travelled a path of running small businesses, established on personality and promoted on the success of creative style.

Tea and key messages

My competency training kicked off in Newhaven with Understanding the Media and Key Messages modules.

At first glance, it seemed pretty straightforward.

Naturally, training is populated with case studies of previous rescues. This also serves as an informative, flavour-gathering journey around the UK’s 238 lifeboat stations.

So far so good. I’m having an interesting and quite jolly time, always with tea and biscuits supplied by regional media officer (RMO) Paul, who is unmistakably seasoned and will soon become my patient sense-checker.

The rose-tinted spectacles come off

It’s not until we reach the third module, Press Releases, that the case study tempo escalates; specifically, a clip of Newhaven Lifeboat on 27 October 2013, involved in a six-hour search for 14-year-old boy.

The footage showed the Severn-class lifeboat battling ferocious waves, hideously close to the harbour wall, in fading light and storm-force winds.

Tragically, the boy was swept away from the beach and lost at sea.

I was completely flawed with raw emotion. I felt myself welling up and battled this while Paul talked through the scenario; the importance of calm and the refusal to be rushed into issuing a statement.

Clarity of fact: who, where, when, how, and what did we do?

Stay humble, with acknowledgment of another agency’s contribution. Respect the RNLI’s non-judgemental philosophy and, above all, be human.

The rose-tinted spectacles were off.

I left my first training session looking forward to the next. It was – sure as anything – required.

Roz Ashton is a trainee Lifeboat press officer at Newhaven RNLI

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