WE see the devastating effects of flooding on a regular basis, but what we don’t see are those who are risking their lives to save others.
The Observer went along to a West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service flood rescue training session to see the team in action.
Last Tuesday, the technical rescue team were training in the icy waters of Shoreham Harbour, followed by a day at Lee Valley Olympic Centre, where the water is more aggressive.
Station commander Marvin Smith was overlooking the training and said: “It is going to be very cold.
“All the guys are trained up to a national standard. They’re technicians, they can swim, they can get themselves out of problems by swimming away from risks, they’re also trained to swim with lines attached to them so they can rescue casualties, and they’re also trained to wade in a safe manner.”
The flood rescue team also look quite different to your traditional firefighter – wearing dry suits, which have personal flotation devices in them. They are also armed with ropes, whistles, lights, and anything else you need in cold and dangerous conditions.
“It’s a lot different to what you normally see on a firefighter,” said Mr Smith.
In Shoreham, the team practised wading in the water and rescue with ropes and with a raft.
The conditions are bleak – with strong winds and low temperatures, the water is cold and the tidal push is strong – but these are conditions the firefighters want to train in as it is what they will be up against in a real-life situation.
In fact, just days after their training, some were dispatched to Berkshire to help with the flooding situation there while others were put to work in West Sussex on Friday when the storm hit.
Mr Smith was in Bosham on Friday night and said: “Winds were gusting at 70/80mph. The water was waist-deep in some places.
“We were checking vehicles and properties, making sure there was nobody was trapped in the vehicles and also making sure everybody in the properties was safe.”
When the high tide came in at 11.30pm, the sea flooded several roads in the seaside town, making it the flood rescue team’s job to make sure everyone was okay.
Despite some properties flooding, no-one was evacuated – but storms and flooding seem to be getting more frequent.
“We’re getting wetter winters, we’re getting wetter summers, the weather is changing,” said Mr Smith.
This means the work of the flood rescue team is more important than ever.
West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service has a team of 20 specially-trained firefighters in the county.
This includes the technical rescue unit, as well as specially-trained firefighters in East Wittering and Storrington.
These teams work tirelessly when the severe weather hits – and they were working for 36 hours straight over the Christmas period.
“The service had a real impact over December 23 into December 24 due to really heavy rainfall,” said Mr Smith.
“And while we worked hard with agencies and looked at predictions, the impact was quite severe across the county. The technical rescue unit and teams from Storrington and East Wittering were all out with dry suits during that period, and there were in excess of 60 rescues in that time.”
On December 23 and 24, the fire service had 600 emergency calls.
Mr Smith had the following advice for anyone living in a flood-prone area: “We would advise nobody to wade unnecessarily in flood water.
“There’s a lot of hazards associated with flood water in relation to contamination. One of the first things to go in flood water is from the drains.
“What’s coming out of the drains is then in amongst the water we’re wading in. You’re walking around in sewage.
“As well as that, we always work with wade poles so we can feel what is in front of us as you never know if you’re walking into a ditch or an uncovered manhole. People need to be aware of the dangers. The ground itself is unstable, manhole covers lift, there’s so much you can’t see.
“Any moving water, you shouldn’t be driving your vehicles into it. If you can’t see the bottom, you shouldn’t be in it.
“We need to get the message out.”
Mr Smith is one of 60 technical advisers in the country who go into severely-flooded areas and make an action plan.
“It’s checking on people’s welfare, wading or boating out to make sure they have enough water, medical care if they need it.”
He said some people ‘tough it out’ and stay in their flooded properties, so it is then the team’s job to take those people water and food when they need it.
But he said usually there comes a point when those ‘toughing it out’ have had enough and firefighters take on the task of rescuing them and leading them to safety.