Exercise Durbar: heritage shared

Published:  26 November, 2015

Exercise Durbar not only exercised the multi-agency emergency response to a fire in the summer retreat of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert but will also serve as an exemplary model of preparedness for other high-profile cultural heritage sites. Jose Maria Sanchez de Muniain reports.

The fire on 29 April at Clandon Park House in Surrey, southeast England serves as a stark reminder of the devastating effect of a fire at a heritage building.

The fire spread throughout the unsprinklered mansion, which contained a unique collection of 18th century furniture, porcelain and textiles. The basement was also home to the Surrey Infantry Museum, containing artefacts such a football that was dribbled across No Man’s Land on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, along with 1,500 medals donated by veterans and their families.

Only one room was saved, and the damage would have been much worse had the UK’s National Trust not put into action a rehearsed plan to identify and salvage the most valuable items.

An evacuation plan had been rehearsed only a few weeks before and staff had lists of the most important items in each room, which were taken to tents erected on the lawns and even to the local primary school for temporary storage.

Clandon Park House was not only the worst fire in the history of the National Trust - a charity that protects over 350 houses, gardens and monuments - but it was also the UK’s greatest heritage disaster since the 1992 Windsor Castle fire.

The cultural importance of the buildings and the individual items they contain is one thing, but also important to consider is that heritage tourism is estimated to be worth over US$39bn to the UK economy.

Exercise Durbar

On 27 September 2015 Exercise Durbar took place on the Isle of Wight, southwest England, a live training exercise that aimed to test the multi-agency emergency response to another high-profile heritage site, Osborne House.

Run by English Heritage and open to the public, Osborne house was for 50 years the summer home and rural retreat for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Today, many of the rooms are still filled with original furniture and works of art that reflect the couple’s personal tastes.

As well as testing Osborne House’s emergency procedures and the response by the Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service, Durbar’s objectives were evaluating the assistance from Hampshire Fire and Rescue, 9.9 miles across the Solent from  Southampton; evaluating the salvage of special value items from Osborne House; testing on site water supplies and communications; and testing the multi-agency use of the TETRA Airwave radio network.

The scenario is as follows. Osborne House has been open to the public for 45 minutes when the fire alarm is activated. The fire alarm panel indicates the activation point is the basement area below the Durbar room. After reporting smoke issuing from the basement, radio contact is lost with the investigating security officer. At 10.50 Osborne House duty manager calls 999 from the security control room and invokes house emergency procedures. Fire Control updates the pre-determined attendance to three pumping appliances, mass decontamination unit, foam salvage tender, command unit and both the duty and senior duty officers. On arrival the incident commander of the first appliance is met by security staff who state that the fire is in the basement area below the Durbar room and there are people unaccounted for, including the initial investigating security officer and possibly three or four visitors.

As this is an exercise involving a ferry ride from Southampton, by the time Hampshire FRS has been officially called for assistance by the Isle of Wight FRS, a convoy is on its way.

On the ground

On the day of the exercise, IFJ assembles at 0900 at Hampshire Fire and Rescue’s headquarters at Eastleigh for the exercise briefing and to join an escorted convoy that includes two command vehicles and six pumping appliances.

As the escorted convoy makes its way to the Southampton Red Funnel terminal, Station Manager Charlie Harris provides some valuable background to the state of fire preparedness of heritage buildings in the UK.

Based at Southsea Fire Station, Harris specialises in technical fire safety for both commercial and heritage buildings. He’s also part of a heritage protection special interest group set up in 2008 by the Institute of Fire Engineers that works with various professional organisations to research and promote best practice for heritage building fire response and protection.

Historically the main cause of heritage fires is due to hot work carried out by contractors (a halogen lamp in the case of Windsor Castle) and from a firefighting perspective these are amongst the most challenging fires because heritage buildings are riddled with hidden ducts and shafts: “You don’t’ know where the fire is spreading. It may look like a solid wall but there might be a duct going below and you don’t know what’s there. You think that you have a stop on it but it’s run somewhere else.” The situation is exacerbated by a lack of comprehensive building plans, and Harris explains that he is currently looking at whether radar equipment used in the oil industry could be useful in building a true picture of a structure.

Harris makes the interesting point that fire protection of cultural buildings – if not prescribed – can be down to cultural mindset. In the UK there can be a reluctance to install sprinkler systems or smoke detectors on highly ornate ceilings: ‘But in other countries, such as the Salzburg Palace in Vienna, Austria they have sprinkler heads and smoke detectors visible on the ceilings. It is as if they want to demonstrate to their citizens that they love their heritage.’

A good place to start with fire preparedness, explains Harris, is producing a salvage plan. In its simplest form it is a prioritised list of all the artefacts that must be saved. It may contain individual rooms marked on a building plan, and on the reverse side the item(s) to be salvaged.  It may contain information on the number of people needed to carry a particular item out, the tools required for removal, the best way to carry it, and even what to do if it is damaged: ‘A salvage plan doesn’t have to be that technical, it can be quite straightforward. For a suit of armour three floors up a castle the salvage plan may be to smash the windows and throw it out.’

The journey to East Cowes on the Isle of Wight ferry, care of Red Funnel, is uneventful, with the firefighters’ only role being to take in the beautiful views whilst reassuring co-passengers that no, there isn’t a fire on the boat, this is a training exercise at Osborne House and yes, it will remain open for visitors. Once off the ferry, the convoy convenes at the strategic holding area in an industrial area near Osborne House. From there, various resources are gradually called into the exercise zone via communications between Isle of Wight FRS’ command unit at Osborne and Hampshire FRS command unit at the holding area.

Overseeing the proceedings in the grounds opposite Osborne House is Jo Summers, responsible for emergency planning for English Heritage. She explains that this is the first joint exercise on the Isle of Wight although other similar exercises have been carried out on other English Heritage properties. ‘It is highly valuable and it validates the emergency response. You see where the kinks are and the possible hold ups. It is better to find out in an exercise like this. It is important to test our pressure on the hydrants, as well as understanding the priorities of all the organisations.’ She admits that an exercise such as Durbar involves a lot of effort on everybody’s part; ‘But it is the only way forward, particularly because each one of our properties has different challenges.’

Then it’s time for the first multi-agency meeting, lead by Isle of Wight Area Manager Mick Keenan, who stands surrounded by a group of firefighters from both Isle of Wight and Hampshire as well as police officers and English Heritage staff. It is half past twelve and he explains that these meetings will take place every half an hour so that progress and priorities are collectively checked.

Operations Commander Isle of Wight Station Manager James Lucy then provides the common operational picture. There is a fire in the basement area to the rear of the Durbar wing. Firefighting personnel and rescue crews are attending for people reported missing. These operations continue and one person has so far been rescued: ‘We are just starting the salvage operation looking particularly at the first floor of the building, working with our colleague volunteers from English Heritage to establish a salvage plan to rescue priority items. The delay at the moment is to check smoke travel within the building and ensure it is safe to go in. We are setting up the salvage centre to receive the items and from there they will be moved to a holding area.’

Keenan takes over: ‘My concerns are, from my experience in this [type of fire], the spread of fire to the rest of the building via voids, ducts and shafts. So we want to make sure we have the resources in place early enough to deal with that.’

The focus moves to the salvage operations. Chas McGill, Watch Manager OIC at Hardley Fire Station and Airwave and HVP Tactical Advisor for the South East Region, escorts us into the first floor of Osborne House where items are being salvaged from rooms that are predominantly used for educational purposes.

As well as an eclectic mix of heavy wooden furniture and modern tables and chairs, the rooms contain a number of framed photographs of the royal family, hanging from wires fixed on the walls at around 4 metres in height. While some firefighters begin carrying out various items, McGill explains that for the purposes of this exercise English Heritage doesn’t want firefighters to snip the wires of the photographs - as they would do in a real emergency - but rather use a ladder to unhook them from the wall. An English Heritage employee meanwhile is instructing firefighters on how to carry out various types of items without damaging them. McGill explains that a priority list that includes photographs of individual items is highly useful during a salvage operation, but there are challenges. ‘What we have to do as a fire service is identify the risks and go to the landowners and show them our salvage model. There is no national standard for this type of operation, so we need to identify the risks prior to a response, otherwise we could turn up with two pumps and four people.’

We return to the sunshine outside, where the salvage tent has turned into an antiques market full of chairs, tables, paintings, and photographs. Each item has its own individual laminated A4 information document containing a wealth of information. As well as a photograph with the object’s dimensions and priority number, each information document explains how the individual item should be carried (eg ‘underside of top’, in the case of a table) and by how many people. It also outlines a ‘first-aid record’ tick box (eg wet, broken, contaminated, smoke damaged) and packing instructions for the object.

As the day draws to a close we have the final situational update with Area Manager Mick Keenan ‘We have rescued all the casualties and the fire is now out and dealt with happily. The salvage ops are now completed, and from my point of view it’s now about returning to normal. We’ll have a fire investigation team coming in, and the initial report is that it was an electrical fire. There is a lot of learning here, and as an organisation it is key that we capture it all. I want all of you to reflect on it and make some notes. I’ll be contacting you for a debrief.’

On the return journey to Southampton we discover that the water pressure at the hydrant for Osborne House was found to be only 0.5 bar, well below the required pressure to supply water to the pumps. If this had been a real emergency the fire services would have had to deploy their high-volume pumps to draw water from the sea about 1km away as the crow flies. With one of the main goals of the exercise being to test on-site water supplies, Exercise Durbar can be said to have met its objectives with flying colours. More importantly, it has helped to ensure that an invaluable part of British culture remains protected for future generations.

Communications time line

  • A 999 call goes from Osborne House to Surrey Fire Control (Surrey Fire Control mobilise appliances on the Isle of Wight)
  • Surrey Fire Control anticipates the risk and requests extra resources from Hampshire (Hants) FRS (Fire & Rescue Service) Control
  • Hants FRS Control mobilises appliances in the strategic holding area of its headquarters at Eastleigh
  • Comms are established between Hants FRS Control and the Hants FRS command vehicle now mobilised at the strategic holding area in Eastleigh, FHAM-OPS1
  • Hants FRS Control calls the Red Funnel ferry company to warn that a convoy is being assembled and will need transportation to the Isle of Wight
  • All Hants appliances are requested to go to designated talk group Number Seven until arrival at the Isle of Wight, when they will move to FIOW- OPS01 talk group
  • Hants FRS informs Hants Constabulary by telephone that they are in attendance: Hants Constabulary sets up an interoperability talk group with Hants FRS Control and the Isle of Wight FRS Command vehicle on the PHANTS- ES3 talk group
  • Hants Police escorts convoy to the Red Funnel ferry terminal
  • The convoy reaches the strategic holding area on the Isle of Wight
  • Hants FRS’ Command vehicle on the convoy joins the interoperability TETRA radio talk group PHANTS- ES3 established by Hants Constabulary for communications with the Isle of Wight’s Command vehicle at Osborne House
  • Hants FRS appliances on the Isle of Wight move to FIOW- OPS1 talk group
  • Fire ground radios are used at the scene, with the only other radio talk groups being point-to-point TETRA communications for water relay purposes.

Airwave Tactical Advisor for the South East Region Chas McGill, who created the comms plan for the exercise, commented that the comms side went very well with no issues arising: ‘On hindsight we would have liked to have involved the Isle of Wight County Council and set up a talk group with their emergency planning bunker, as well as involve Red Funnel with their own TETRA radio.’

  • Operation Florian

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