The summer of 2007 saw the UK being affected by what were described as two 'unprecented' rainfall events. These led to widespread flooding resulting in the UK F&RS's largest rescue operation since the Second World War. In total over 55,000 homes and businesses were flooded and over 9000 rescues undertaken.
Responsibility for Flood Rescue
These events drew attention to the key role the UK F&RS play during floods events -one which they currently have no statutory duty to undertake.
After the flooding in August 2007, Sir Michael Pitt was asked by Ministers to conduct an independent review of the flooding emergency that took place. In his interim review of December 2007 Sir Michael concluded that unless otherwise agreed locally, 'upper tier' local authorities should be the lead organisation in relation to multi-agency planning for severe weather emergencies at the local level, and for triggering multi-agency arrangements in response to severe weather warnings. The Pitt review also pointed out that organisations carrying out flood rescue, including the fire and rescue services, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and numerous NGO's, are highly valued by the public and were generally praised for their effective operations over the summer. However, the review notes that there is currently some ambiguity as to which organisations have responsibilities for flood rescue.
The UK Fire and Rescue Services usually attend to such situations, and all fire and rescue crews should have received some basic training to work safely near water. In 2001, a UK Fire Service manual was published entitled "Safe Working Near, On or In Water", which provided general guidance on water rescue operations and for the first time outlined national training levels. Response capability differs between services and whilst some have little specialist water and flood rescue capability others are well equipped with specialist teams of swiftwater and flood rescue technicians and boat operators. In times of flooding there is an expectation from the community that the Fire and Rescue Service will provide a response, yet as already mentioned they have no explicit statutory duties for flood rescue. Similarly, although the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is a Category 1 responder for emergencies at sea, on the coast and in estuaries, and the RNLI has a statutory duty on the Thames, neither organisation has a legal responsibility for flood rescue. However, both organisations played an active role in the response to the summer 2007 floods and deployed crews to assist the local response in a number of the affected areas.
Fire Service Flood Support
The Summer floods of 2007 were instrumental in showing that there is now a much greater capability within the UK Fire and Rescue Service to respond to major floods as compared to previous floods in 2000, but at the same time highlighted areas of response that need development. For the first time a Fire Service National Flood Support Centre was set up to coordinate specialist response and this was used to deploy teams of swiftwater rescue technicians and boat operators to the affected areas. Its not practical for an individual Fire and Rescue Services to have the necessary personnel and equipment to deal with a major flood event and the ability to call in specialist rescue teams from outside the area is the key to dealing with these events. In the USA, the concept of 'Team Typing' has been in use for a number of years whereby rescue assets are 'typed' against a pre-determined capability framework. This allows strategic managers to request assistance and know the capability of those who are providing assistance. An ad-hoc version of this 'Team Typing' was set up at short notice last summer by the National Flood Support Centre and proved to be highly effective.
However whilst it was good to see that specialist teams with appropriate training and equipment were available it was still possible to see frontline fire fighters wading in flood waters in fire fighting clothing to rescue people. If we are expecting firefighters to undertake such rescue we need to provide them with both the correct equipment and training to do so safely. However, the financial implications of providing such training and equipment to all fire fighters is considerable.
The Fire Brigades Union has commented stating that the supply of suitable equipment to fire fighters should be an integral part of proper planning for future flood emergencies.
The lessons of the floods 2007 ought to lead to better equipment for frontline firefighters dealing with floods. The Pitt Review states that a key issue to be considered is the provision of resources needed specifically to undertake flood rescue, including personal protective equipment, pumps, rescue craft and especially, trained personnel.
As yet the Fire and Rescue Service as a whole does not have a statutory duty to deal with floods nor adequate training or equipment. Paul Hayden, Chief Fire Officer for Hereford and Worcester, said a lack of standard training and equipment meant the Fire and Rescue Service's response to flooding "isn't as effective as we otherwise could be" and called for improved coordination.
Water Rescue Craft and Equipment
In a study entitled Project Aquarius undertaken on behalf of the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister it was found that in the UK Fire and Rescue Services were using 15 different types of vessel for water rescue. Often these were designed for recreation rather than workboat use. Water rescue craft need to be stable, durable, lightweight and rapidly deployable. A low freeboard permitting easy boarding and a high degree of buoyancy is also desirable as is already available from specialist companies such as MFC Survival Ltd. As well as rescue craft other essential equipment for flood water rescue includes drysuits, life jackets, buoyancy aids and throw lines etc. Having the right equipment for flood rescue is essential but it means nothing without the proper training.
New draft training levels are currently at the final consultation stage and the draft document includes training in both Swiftwater and Flood Rescue Boat Operations and Management of Water and Flood Incidents. Training in these two areas have already been available from training providers such as Rescue 3 (UK) but their adoption as national standards will help solve the issues of co-ordination of response capability as highlighted by Chief Hayden.
With UK's weather predicted to change and flooding set to increase it is clear that 2007's 'unprecedented' event may well be tomorrows foreseeable response challenges for the UK Fire and Rescue Service and that to meet. these investment in training and equipment is essential. However whilst the community expects the fire service to respond to such events it will be difficult for them to finance the necessary training and equipment without a statutory duty and the central funding associated with such a duty.