Safe and sunny holidays

Well, we certainly have plenty of sun, but are we paying enough attention to safety?

Whether we are walking in the hills, sunbathing on the beach, swimming in pools or in the sea, or enjoying the “levada” walks in Madeira, there are certain precautions we should all take to avoid accidents or worse.

One of the great attractions in Portugal is its weather, and thus enjoying outdoor activities. To maximise this enjoyment, I have put together some of the advice provided by the government in order to create awareness and reduce the risk of an accident occurring.

Forest fire risk

We start with the big one. By now, most people should be aware of the risk of forest fires. High temperatures, low humidity and high winds is a toxic combination that provides the conditions for forest fires and the fast spreading of flames. But these conditions alone do not start fires; it is usually through negligence and to a lesser extent deliberately.

We are now in the critical fire period which normally lasts until September 30, during which it is forbidden to make fire of any kind in rural areas, including the provision of campfires for recreation and for cooking food. It is also forbidden to use fuel, matches, gas or other dangerous materials for lighting or cooking; burn vegetation in any area that was cut or stacked; release balloons with fire or any other kind of fireworks in any area. It is also forbidden to smoke in forest areas, and in pathways that border or cross them.

Use of barbecues at home

Safe Communities Portugal had sought clarification from the ANPC (national civil protection authority) on this subject. The use of barbecues is allowed at private houses (terraces/patios) and their gardens.

However, if this activity results in a fire, the person that caused the fire is “criminally liable” through negligence.

ANPC advice is to be very careful about weather conditions (temperature, humidity and especially the wind) as well as the vegetation around the barbecue. Be particularly careful during the critical fire period. It is a good idea to have a water hose nearby.

High temperatures

Already this year we have seen higher-than-usual temperatures across the country, and in many areas records have been broken with temperatures in excess of 40°C. In such circumstances, care has to be taken to avoid dehydration.

The Director General of Health has issued advice on this subject, which can be found in English on the Safe Communities website. This includes avoiding direct sunlight, especially between 11am and 6pm, and increasing your intake of water or natural fruit juices, even at night. Children under six months should not be subject to direct or indirect exposure to the sun. DGH also recommends avoiding activities that require great physical effort, such as sports and outdoor labour activities. We also need to pay special attention to groups most vulnerable to heat – the chronically ill, the elderly, children, pregnant women and outdoor workers.

Ultraviolet (UV)

Solar radiation is an important natural factor of the Earth’s climate, significantly influencing the environment. It can, however, cause serious damage to health. UV levels in Portugal are measured from 1 to 11+, the latter being the highest. It is important to regularly check UV levels in your area if you are planning outdoor activities.

The UV average for Portugal between the months of October and April range from levels 3 and 6, but increasing to 9-10 (very high) or 11 (maximum) between May and September. IPMA recommends the use of sunglasses with UV protection, wearing a hat and t-shirt, the use of sunscreen (factor 30 and above) and avoiding the sun, particularly children. At level 11, it recommends avoiding all exposure to the sun.

Safe swimming

OK, it is very hot, so what better activity than to jump in the pool or visit the beach and go for a swim? However, unfortunately, there have been a number of drowning deaths, so it is important to take some precautions. 

ABTA, the British tourism association, is currently highlighting its ‘swim safety’ campaign. It recommends users to always follow pool rules and safety signs, and to check the pool layout to know where the deep and shallow ends are, especially before jumping or diving in.

Check warning flags and signage on the beach. Beware of dangerous beach currents: these can be very powerful. Ask locally if there are any known dangerous currents or dangers caused by the tides and avoid swimming in these areas.

Beware of underwater hazards, such as reefs, rocks, sudden changes in depth and marine life. It is important to only dive where it is permitted to do so, and don’t dive or jump from rocks, piers, breakwaters, poolside furniture or decorative pool features.

Never swim alone, ‘buddy up’ with others in your party. Children should be supervised by an adult at all times and never left unattended, even if a lifeguard is present. Armbands can be a good training swimming aid for children but are not a substitute for supervision.

Never swim at night, and especially not after drinking alcohol. Know how and where to get help, if you see someone in difficulty. Raise the alarm and call the emergency services – ensure you know the correct number for the country you’re in.

Rip tides are currents which may appear near jetties, rocky outcrops or along the beach (at regular intervals). These currents can be very strong, dragging the bather to distant and deeper areas of the sea. They often appear as patches of calm water between areas with waves. If you are caught in a rip tide, do not panic or try to swim against the current. Instead turn and swim parallel with the coast to a point you are no longer affected by the current and then swim back towards the shore.

Madeira Levadas

A Levada walk is one of the highlights of an outdoor experience when visiting Madeira. There are over 100 extending for some 2000kms! Some can be very steep and narrow with drops of several hundred metres, and occasionally there have been accidents involving hikers. It is important, therefore, to take safety precautions. In Madeira the weather can change suddenly, so it is best to be prepared.

Government advice includes: when taking a Levada walk for the first time, do so accompanied by a qualified guide; prepare yourself and collect all the updated information about the route you are planning to follow; if you are scared of heights then make sure to do your research before taking a Levada walk. It is also important to calculate the total time you will be spending on that route (so that you will finish the walk before dark) and inform the hotel you are staying in or any other reliable person about the route that you plan to do and the expected time of arrival.


Lastly, a reminder to not leave pets in parked cars even for a few minutes where temperatures can reach over 60°C.

By David Thomas
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David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In October 2011 he founded Safe Communities Algarve an on-line platform www.safecommunitiesalgarve.com here in the Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal, with a new website www.safecommunitiesportugal.com launched in May 2015. He can be contacted at [email protected], or on 913045093 or at www.facebook.com/scalgarve