EDIT: A commenter points out I have a number of the details wrong, for which, apologies. The main purpose of this post is to point out “just how much we expect firefighters to do – far more than just putting out fires.” If ever you should find yourself under chemical, biological, radioactive or nuclear attack, please follow the instructions of the personnel on site and don’t rely on this blogpost as your blueprint to safe escape.
I spent a couple of hours this afternoon at a fascinating training session for emergency services personnel. One of my duties as a councillor is to serve on Notts Fire and Rescue Authority, so this sort of thing crops up every now and again – and always amazes me at just how much we expect firefighters to do. Far more than just putting out fires.
The event simulated a major contamination incident. CBRN is Chemical, Biological, Radioactive or Nuclear, and it seems you use pretty much the same sort of kit at all of them.
In attendance were personnel from all three emergency services from all five counties of the East Midlands, as well as quite a lot of military people, presumably soldiers. I formed part of a group of about 30 observers, who were variously senior managers from the emergency services and other local authority people like me. We got to go around first for a Q&A and in my case, my first glimpse at the kit they use.
Which is comprehensive. We started off on a multi-hazard suit, a lurid orange affair with a breathing mask and inbuilt water flask. They need the water because they get so hot they lose a lot of fluids.
The guy at the front is wearing one of those suits. You can apparently only wear them for a very limited amount of time – less than an hour – before you have to change out of them, and changing out is a very complicated affair. So complicated that you need a person to help you, and a third person to read off the sheet the order you have to do everything. We got to watch two officers disrobe, helped by two other officers wearing the suit, with a third with the cheat sheet. Every second step was “wash your hands in bleach”. Everything has to be done in the right order to avoid contamination getting from the suit onto you. As we were watching them take the things off, we saw they were in three parts – the fluorescent outer layer, an inner layer, and under that, a fetching mormon style thermal underwear suit.
The procedures for officer safety were monumental – keeping track of working time for safety purposes and to make sure no-one gets left behind; the procedures for dressing, undressing and washing, the things you have to carry with you, the things not to bring.
After looking at officer kit, we then followed an exercise about what would happen to civilians in the “hot zone.” They’d be taken to a tent, have their contaminated clothes cut off them with a safety knife, and asked to put on a set of really strange looking protective clothing. They’d be handed bags with numbers on and matching wrist tags and all their clothes and valuables divided between two bags. Then they have to wipe their faces and blow their noses on a wet-one before trooping off to a video camera to recite their names, details and contents of their valuables bags. Only then do they get to go through the shower and get a third change of clothes.
Once in the shower, you’re assisted by officers in another type of suit – this one with self contained breathing apparatus that is suitable for helping out in the showers, but not nearly protective enough to enable you go into the hot zone itself.
While we were there, they ran a simulation about what would happen if one of the suits failed. They had to cut a suit off an officer – not something they practice very often, because the suits are so expensive. Happily, the suit co provide cheaper suits just so you can practice cutting them off.
And fear ye not – if the contamination had already got to you and you were unable to walk, the Ambulance Service have a very similar decontamination tent next door – but their’s had a portable conveyor belt running down the middle. They put you on a back-board and can then trundle you down through the showers, and do everything for you.
After all this excitement, we went to see a mobile lab vehicle – all sorts of interesting kit there, including mobile gas spectrometry and machine that could identify white powders. At this point, the exercise was using one of the deserted houses on the RAF base. Officers had found a “body” in the house along with a white powder that could have been the cause of the contamination. The kit they had with them could identify the body from his fingerprints in 5 minutes, and identify the white powder in 2. It turned out to be flour – but could have been anything!
After that, lunch – Hot Pack rations where you add a little sachet of water to something that looked like a bandage, but got very hot, and heated a foil pouch of something pretty tasty – meatballs and pasta.
And after that, a final stop to see a new command and control van with some very fancy equipment. Designed to fit into any fire brigade operation in the country, it had a satellite and dozens of computers, a projector, tables, an awning that looked suspiciously like a caravan awning, and some very able staff keen to show off what it could do. It ran almost entirely like the control centre at Fire HQ, but with the benefit of being on wheels.
All in all a very interesting day. And almost as interesting was the opportunity to see the deserted RAF Newton, billed as a possible site for one of the government’s eco towns. You can see the attraction – there are already dozens of houses there, and the site is very well placed between the A46 and the A52. Any future development should reuse existing buildings as much as possible to take advantage of the embedded energy – it’s much greener to renovate than rebuild. But equally I can see arguments against it – the immediate roads are tiny, and well-used by cycling families, and can do without a thousand new cars. And bits of the tiny village of Newton were very pretty indeed.