The role of the Branch Chair – a few reflections by Graham

It is over ten years ago that I agreed to take on the role of Branch Chair. This was never my intention, but time flies. For reasons that were relevant then, I said at the time that no matter what, I was going to retire from most, if not all, lifesaving activity when I was 60. Lifesaving, as we practice it in this country, is a young person’s activity. If it is to be sustainable, then those of us who are old enough to be the grandparents of participants need to move over and make room for the next generation.

What is the role of the Branch Chair? The simple answer is that it is whatever you make of it. When I took over there was still some debate as to whether it was Branch Chairman or Branch Chair!

One quick digression… The Branch structure of the RLSS dates back to the old Police administrative regions from the first half of the 20th century. They haven’t changed whereas the boundaries used by the Police have! Thus Surrey Branch theoretically extends from the southern boundary of what most people think of as Surrey, to the River Thames in Central London. Personally, I have always thought that this was ridiculous, and that there ought to be a Central London Branch, with Surrey Branch working just inside the M25 but no further. I have raised this countless times at HQ but it hasn’t yet been heard.

Probably the primary responsibility of the Branch Chair is to help the Branch survive. This might seem a bit extreme, but every year there are one or two Branches that have ceased to be. They may have stopped doing anything because there were no volunteers prepared to run them, or because the members of the Executive find themselves at such a diametrically opposed position to the HQ staff that they stop being affiliated to the Society. Generally, in Surrey, this hasn’t been the case, and while there have been frustrations, they haven’t warranted such dramatic action.

Part of this responsibility involves fiscal management. While some Branches raise funds for their local activities, the accounts that I inherited were very strong and require virtually no effort. The Branch receives a small percentage of the fee for every award taken. This has always been more than enough for our purposes. This financial management though did experience two major changes over the decade. Historically, the reason for this per award proportion, was that each Branch did the processing of the awards locally. Hence there needed to be an Awards Officer, and this was definitely the busiest job on the Executive Committee. Firstly, beginning with the Rookie products, the new award structure no longer required processing in the Branch and instead was done centrally. This substantially reduced the load of the Awards Officer, and while we are incredibly fortunate to have had Gail Moore do this work throughout most of my time as Chair, I think she would agree that the burden has reduced enormously – mainly just supporting a handful of legacy awards. While we were promised that we would still receive the contribution, and do, we have no practical way of verifying this.

Secondly, the RLSS auditors apparently advised HQ that for Branches to hold their funds in local bank accounts was no longer acceptable for a charity and that we needed to operate centralised accounting. There was a lot of negativity about this around the country, but Surrey were one of the first, if not the first, to agree to it. This meant that the need for a Branch Treasurer disappeared completely. We receive regular statements of account from HQ and they handle all our expense payments, purchases and so on. I am not aware of a single problem since this happened.

A decade ago, we had to maintain our own mailing lists, many people were still refusing to give us their email addresses, and so communication was hard. We did a major campaign to get people to give us this information. With changing social norms and our efforts, the vast majority of members now communicate by email. At the time, all membership renewals happened once a year. This made it easy for us to update our list – a once a year job. However, two problems arose. Firstly, HQ moved to a floating renewal date – this was very much easier for them to manage as it shared the workload over the whole year. Unfortunately, it made it much harder for us to update our records. Secondly, the rising concerns about data protection, meant that HQ insisted that they should manage all membership records. This prevented us from having our own list and means that to communicate with members we have to go to HQ, get them to prepare a one off Mailchimp list, and give us access to this. Because of the workload they insist that this can only be done once a quarter. To be honest, this is probably sufficient for our purposes. Over the years, I have tried to do newsletters more often, even monthly once, but much of our activity is planned annually, so a mailing even once every six months is probably enough.

Alongside this, most organisations need a web presence, and before I became Chair, I had set up the Branch website. This has morphed a few times, and is desperately in need of updating. More recently, Facebook became a medium of choice for clubs and we have such a page. In the absence of anyone else with the skills to do so, I set this up. It isn’t part of the Chair’s job, but you do need someone to take it over.

The Chair tries to keep an overview of these activities. While much of it would be carried out by the Branch Secretary, as they were called, or Branch Administrator as we now say, it is a two person job, and for a long time we had no Secretary or Administrator, so then it falls on the Chair’s shoulders.

The activity of the Branch depends a lot on local circumstances. Some Branches have lots of clubs and few schools; ours is the reverse. Schools generally expect very little support. We have had a constant battle to keep clubs up and running – pool time, proactive volunteers, and local marketing are all necessary. That some clubs continue is entirely down to their own efforts, and I am ashamed to say that in all my time, I never managed to get on top of this. Another Chair might put more energy into it.

Branches that have sea boundaries, have always had more activity and more enthusiastic members. For a long time, Surrey had held one open water awards session each year. One or two clubs organised their own, but the growing focus on H&S meant that many gave up. We began to change this by offering regular on-demand open water TA courses. Then the new Awards structure came into place, with much more emphasis on both still-water and beach awards, and an opening up of the teaching credentials to a wider and less experienced population of instructors. We responded to this, by continuing to offer on-demand open-water endorsement courses, and arranging two stillwater weekends and two beach weekends each year. We were incredibly lucky to be able to piggy back on Sussex Branch’s well established relationship with Southwater Park, and we established a great relationship with Eastbourne Voluntary Lifeguards Club. Sadly, schools seem to avoid offering these options, so we generally only see members of clubs attending.

When I took over, there were less than a dozen Trainer/Assessors active in the Branch. We now have double that number of Instructors. The effort involved in becoming a S&SI is much less, and we get a fair proportion who get trained but soon leave lifesaving altogether, as well as the Branch and the RLSS.

The Branch Lifesaving Coordinator, Alison Angiolini throughout my time, has been crucial in keeping on top of all these activities. She has kept lists of prospective instructors and tried to make sure that a course could be laid on whenever there was a small number. To do so required a National Trainer Assessor in Lifesaving. The requirements to become one of these were rather arduous, and so there had been no new NTA(LS) appointments in 20 years or more. I offered to do the necessary steps and become one. This was entirely my own choice – it is NOT expected of a Branch Chair – however it probably confuses people who might otherwise volunteer for the Chair’s job. This is why we are able to offer most teaching courses, and a few other bolt-ons in the Branch without having to find (and pay) someone from outside.

Again, for historical reasons, the Branch had stopped holding competitions some time before I got involved. We quickly instigated an annual branch competition, and have been very lucky to have Rowena Moore and others offer to run this. We now have one competition each year, and have tried to organise a second. While this didn’t happen his time, I am sure that demand will grow. Competitive lifesaving is definitely a massively growing aspect of the RLSS activity generally. I personally suspect that in a few years, the RLSS will give up its drowning prevention persona and become the national representative body for sport lifesaving. The Chair’s job is, again, just to take an overview. Personally, I think competitive lifesaving is a great way to raise public awareness of what we do and engage with them. That’s one reason why I am usually the person who stands on the side trying to explain to the spectators what is happening. However, this is because I have a loud voice – again, it isn’t a part of the Chair’s job.

Every year, the RLSS holds an Annual Branch Conference (the ABC). While this is not without its frustrations, it is intended to serve two purposes – to update people on developments in lifesaving nationally and internationally, and to allow people from branches to network with one another in the hope that resources etc are shared. It also serves to say thank you to the volunteers who help at Branch level. In practice, many branches only used to send one or two people. However, when I became chair we agreed as an Executive to sponsor everyone who was giving more voluntary time by being on the Executive. While I do find the event frustrating, I can’t recommend it more wholeheartedly as a way of getting to know what’s going on and what the possibilities are.

As a result of attending the ABC, I found myself co-opted onto a national communications committee. This then closed, and a new committee with responsibility for embedding greater evidence-based practice into lifesaving took off. I chaired this for a while until we agreed that research was better performed centrally by paid staff rather than entirely by volunteers. I was then asked to sit on the RLSS Commonwealth Diploma Committee. The Diploma is the most serious award that the Society as a whole offers. It is presented to individuals who carry out research that can have a big impact on the world of lifesaving (the world generally, in fact). Through this committee, I have helped encourage the RLSS to make this award much more accessible to members. Now, a school student could choose to do some work over a summer holiday, and be given help writing this up and presenting it to the RLSS Commonwealth and, provided it is good enough, have a reasonable expectation of receiving the diploma. This has yet to be proven, but the possibility is there. As the RLSS has now appointed a research manager, and the Diploma criteria are revised, I have also resigned from this committee. However, again, this kind of activity is NOT expected of all chairs, though to be fair, most do get involved in some kind of national activity – what my successor does will hopefully play to their interests and strengths.

Finally, I think, the Branch Chair IS responsible for translating national initiatives to their local community. In my time, there have been three such attempts.

Firstly, the RLSS piloted the concept of Community First Responders. One of the Branches managed this very effectively with their ambulance trust, and the rest were encouraged (for a short while) to do the same. I tried to get this to happen in Surrey, but the Surrey Ambulance trust wanted to work with an organisation that would field large numbers of first aiders and operate to service level agreements. We were simply not in a position to do this. However, they did host our AGM once. Ironically, I was more successful in the Thames Valley area where I live, and played a small role in building their CFR community from 40 to 1400 volunteers over the same period. It all comes down to building relationships with county level communities. And, again, that’s something I have been less successful at in Surrey and hope my successor will do.

The second initiative was to devise a strategy to achieve zero drownings in any Branch over a year. To put this in context, there are typically two in Surrey. We haven’t succeeded, though I don’t believe any Branch ever will. Surrey in particular has a lot of challenges to this. What I was able to do was to glean as accurate information as possible about the patterns in Surrey, and illustrate that most of the RLSS initiatives were unlikely to address these. Not a popular message! Our victims are typically males over 45, and many probably chose to drown. As a Society, we have avoided engaging with this challenge, preferring to train young people and to lobby for swimming lessons. I am personally, very encouraged by the Samaritans campaign; “#smalltalksaveslives” which offers a way forward in this respect.

The third initiative revolves around the Save A Baby’s Life (SABL) theme. Quite how the RLSS got involved in spearheading this is now also lost in the mysts of time. We supported mass SABL workshops held around the country, with hundreds of parents sponsored through Tesco, attending an evening event with 30 or more TAs to teach them. This morphed into an award scheme and other activities. In Surrey, we decided to offer free small group classes in the home of parents. We were very lucky to have a couple of people volunteer to administer this, bought dedicated mannequins, and have trained a lot of people in this way. We hope that they will be encouraged to think of the RLSS when their children become old enough to participate in Rookie and other awards. Essex Branch had responded differently. They agreed to provide a mass training activity at the Baby and Toddler Show which is held twice a year. This was held at Bluewater and they were very successful. When the Show moved to Sandown Park, we were asked if we would take over. As Chair, I felt this was something we had to say yes to. As a result for the last three years, we have attended five events and trained upwards of 500 parents at each over three days. While organising this is NOT a job for the Chair per se, it needs doing, and if no-one else is able to do so, then the Chair ends up with it.

I hope this gives you a much better understanding of the role, what is involved and what isn’t, what the opportunities are that it opens up, and the potential to make a bigger impact. Hopefully someone will be happy to take it on. While I have no intention of getting in the way, I don’t intend disappearing completely, and have said that I will continue to support wherever I can.

Graham Wilson