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Tuesday, 22 July 2014

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How Carlisle's floods helped fire service cope with west Cumbria disaster

As the river Derwent burst its banks and bridges collapsed, communities in west Cumbria were cut off from the rest off the county. So were the fire stations.

Cumbria fire photo
Conservative party leader David Cameron, right, with Dave Edgar, left and Deputy Chief Fire Officer John Moorcroft

In times of emergency, when an incident is too big for local firefighters to handle alone, neighbouring crews are called in for reinforcements.

Shifting fire and rescue cover to where it’s needed most is usually a routine operation.

Not so when bridges are down and roads are closed.

During the peak of the floods most routes in and out of the worst-hit areas were out of bounds.

The immediate impact was obvious and fire chiefs were quick to take action.

The more difficult task was making sure residents remained safe from day-to-day dangers when the water subsided.

The flooding may have stopped but the devastation it wreaked lingers on.

Aside from personal suffering, travel is the major issue as a number of bridges remain out of use.

Workington is still divided after the collapse of the Northside bridge; its Calva bridge is also on the brink of collapse.

Drivers have to make a 20-mile detour via Cockermouth to get from one side of the town to the other.

A temporary footbridge across the Derwent has been built by the army but it has been estimated that it will take at least two years before the Northside and Calva are replaced with permanent structures.

Four days after the floods Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service (CFRS) called in community and contingency safety specialists ACTIVE Solutions Europe.

ACTIVE had nationwide data which was collected from more than 18,000 incidents between 2006 and 2008.

CFRS added its own locally gathered intelligence and all the information was fed into a programme specially designed by ACTIVE for analysis.

It created scenarios for the deployment of firefighters while bridges are rebuilt or repaired.

It involved measuring the changing levels of risk alongside the type of incidents which CFRS would be expected to tackle.

Potential shifts to the CFRS workload were investigated in order to establish the impact on the worst-affected areas – Workington and Seaton.

The conclusions were then turned into safeguarding strategies.

John Moorcroft, Cumbria's deputy chief fire officer, said: “The work completed by ACTIVE has provided reassurance that we are able to maintain sufficient fire safety cover in the area.

“The results give us detailed information to assist us in making key decisions. The main thing we wanted from this analysis was to have a robust evidence base to ensure that we understand how risk may change and what our community fire safety teams can do to make sure our communities in the affected areas are as safe as possible.”

Paul Smith, managing director of ACTIVE, added: “We commenced this work within hours of Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service contacting us.

“Our experts were able to define and deliver the analysis within a few days.

“As the worst-hit areas of Cumbria recover from the havoc caused by the floods I hope that the information provided to Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service will contribute to the ongoing safety of residents in the area.”

A spokesperson for CFRS said the outcome of the risk-assessment exercise resulted in a number of strategic decisions being taken.

They included monitoring staffing levels at Maryport to ensure the station’s pump is always available and increasing community safety activity in north Workington and Seaton.

A fire-safe event was held in Northside last week which resulted in 58 homes being getting free fire safety checks the same day.

A further 43 families were referred for visits at the earliest opportunity.

Although it’s never possible to be 100 per cent prepared for a natural disaster, CFRS was in a better position to deal with the deluge than it had been when Carlisle was submerged in 2005.

The previous floods made CFRS bosses realise the service did not have the right tools or experience to deal with large-scale water emergencies.

Since then it has spent a considerable amount of money on training and equipment.

Cumbria’s chief fire officer Dominic Harrison told the News & Star that CFRS did not possess a single boat in 2005.

And there was also a major lack of specialist kit for firefighters to wear.

This time CFRS had a supply of protective clothing and five boats in action.

However, crews soon discovered that the boats needed to be bigger so they could carry larger numbers of flood victims.

They also could have done with more powerful engines to navigate the current.

Mr Harrison said: “In 2005 the flood water in Carlisle was quite static. It rose quite quickly but wasn’t flowing at 13 knots an hour like it was on Cockermouth Main Street at one point.

“In Carlisle we were picking one or two people and moving them slowly back to places of safety. We didn’t have significant numbers of people who needed to be rescued urgently.

“In Cockermouth the situation was far more dramatic in that sense.

“We are looking at getting a bigger boat. We’re told that this was a once-in-a-thousand-year event, but you could argue that we’ve had two of those in four years.”

Unsurprisingly, the main problem CFRS faces when it comes to upgrading its water rescue equipment is money.

The Government says fire authorities do not have a statutory duty to take part in flood rescue operations.

This means Westminster is not obliged to hand over the money that’s required to get them fully ready for action.

Ministers are being pressured into having a re-think. The organisations calling for extra cash to be allocated include the Fire Chiefs Association and the Fire Brigade Union.

Mr Harrison has paid tribute to the efforts of all the emergency services during the 2009 floods.

Talking about CFRS staff, both on the front-line and in the backroom, he said: “I’m tremendously proud. People have stopped me in the street and told me what a great job we did and I know this has been happening to others.

“We were working in a challenging environment and everyone who was there or saw the pictures on TV will know that.”

Adrian Kevern, Cumbria’s Fire Brigade Union health and safety representative, echoed the praise.

He said “The FBU would like to salute the commitment and dedication shown by the county’s firefighters during the recent floods. Working in difficult conditions, alongside other agencies, firefighters endeavoured to help and assist as many people as was physically possible with the resources available.

“The conditions faced by our crews were of such a nature that a great many of the rescues were complex and would require tenacity, strength and skill to achieve a satisfactory outcome.

“Once the risk-critical rescue stage was over, firefighters concentrated their efforts on the recovery stage, with crews pumping out flooded basements and assisted householders where they possibly could.”

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