Rushing in is not always good!

Published:  01 September, 2008

After responding to a number of flood events up and down the UK in the last two years – including 2007’s near-disastrous summer floods – Paul Gibson is adamant about one thing.

Fire brigades need to be 100 per cent confident that if they declare themselves ready to respond to catastrophic events (especially those involving major rivers), that they be fully trained and have the best equipment and PPE that is out there.

Unfortunately, in reality that is not what happens. “People and teams respond with good will and then later realise that they are wanting in terms of equipment and training.”
This is especially important when it comes to night time operations. “When we were out in Herefordshire last year, we were one of the few teams that were confident to respond at night time. This is a very different scenario to the normal daytime operations. We had a situation where flood waters of the Severn meet with the river Avon, and the flow on the town’s high street was faster than the flow on the river. It is a very scary place to be in when there are submerged vehicles around and man-hole covers are missing.

“People have to be ready to meet this with confidence in their training and PPE.”
Another important milestone for Paul occurred in 2005, when Merseyside’s water rescue teams went to help the city of Carlisle when it was hit by floods after a month’s rain fell in 24 hours – the worst storm in two decades.

During the rescue operations, one of Paul’s team members was hit by a mystery illness which put him in an isolation ward in hospital.

“We have learned that when we move to an area, the first things that get consumed are the local resources, and it takes time to organise refreshments and accommodation. We are now fully self sufficient for 48 hours if there are problems with local authorities. That is the biggest lesson; make sure you are completely ready as regards equipment and supplies.”

During last year’s floods Merseyside’s team was one of the few services that had built in resilience for mass flood events, meaning that while teams were out in other parts of the UK, local emergency calls were not unanswered. “At one point we had three teams on the ground: one in Hereford and Worcester; one on the way to relieve them; and a third on the way to Berkshire.”

Merseyside’s lessons have not been learned the easy way, but through time and experience.

In 2004 Merseyside Fire formed the first 24/7 search and rescue team in the country, a move that ultimately led to the creation of the International Water Skills Centre. History has now moved full circle, and the IWSC is now also responsible for rescue operations in the fast-flowing river Mersey. “With building developments on the docks meaning that the area has been developed as a leisure and living area, over half the rescues are from the water. It made sense that we took over the response for the river Mersey.”

As well as more traditional types of water rescue, IWSC also carries out niche training, for example aircraft rescue in water. “We have trained our instructors and developed our own course for aircraft water rescue, training airport fire brigades.” On this course slide rafts are used – these are designed to tow up to 70 people at any one time during mass evacuations. Although originally developed for rescue services at Geneva Airport (which is next to a lake), Merseyside FRS adopted the rafts for use on tidal waters.

  • Operation Florian

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