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High-line and rescue sled used across the river can be used to search difficult areas.

A focus on specialist rescue teams

Devon and Somerset Fire Rescue Service (DSFRS) now has three full Specialist Rescue Teams in the Service area which serves a resident population of 1.4 million. Set up over ten years ago and with incidents rising every year, the Service continues to develop its joint training with other agencies.

The formation of the Specialist Rescues Teams (SRT) raised questions at the time it took place within DSFRS with some members of the Service asking:

  • Do we really need to be looking to expand upon our already wide-ranging skill sets?
  • Would this be an avenue that would be made redundant as budgets decrease?
  • Would these newly established skills and resources ever be used?

Ten years later those with doubts have been proven wrong as crews have found themselves attending some of the most interesting and challenging incidents of their FRS careers.

With Specialist Rescue now accounting for up nearly 15% of the SRT station’s calls, the duration of specialist rescue incidents and cleaning and servicing of equipment, it really has become a key function of the specialist rescue firefighter’s role.

Staff at Bridgwater fire station, situated within the Somerset Command of DSFRS, regularly find themselves utilising their technical skills in a range of rescue scenarios.

What are the Risks?


The Somerset levels, low-lying areas across the centre of the county, were badly hit by flooding during the winter of 2013–2014. This was a sustained test of how the service would be able to cope with such a widespread event over many weeks.

With such large areas of Somerset completely cut off, SRT crews were the only resource able to get to some of the more remote areas by use of Firefighters equipped with dry suits, inflatable mud paths and inflatable boats using either paddle or engine power. The extreme weather conditions saw crews really put to the test rescuing multiple casualties as well as pets and livestock over a period lasting several months.

Humanitarian boat being crewed by DSFRS helping the village of Muchelney.

Humanitarian boat being crewed by DSFRS helping the village of Muchelney.

Line rescue

One of the main permanent risks for rescue from height incidents is the popular tourist spot of Cheddar Gorge. With many visitors flooding to the area to see the lovely sights DSFRS are often called to assist with either a crag fast, injured climber or an over-enthusiastic holidaymaker who has scaled just a little higher than they realised to get an extra special photo! With drops of over 200m in places, difficult access to the topside and unstable and loose terrain this creates one of the most challenging areas we have to work within.

Largest construction site in Europe

The Hinkley Point ‘C’ nuclear power station on the coast of Somerset is currently the largest single construction project in Europe. Just 11 miles from Bridgwater, this project presents another area of potential high risk for the SRT technicians. Tower cranes, deep excavations, tunnelling and confined spaces exist on land. in addition, Construction workers are working just offshore in the Bristol Channel piling foundations for a jetty to be built on a tidal estuary that has the world’s second highest tidal range.

Supported through a well-structured risk assessment, training plan and an experienced training team, crews have developed across all aspects of their work.

Working with other agencies

Whilst the DSFRS internal training is of critical importance across the range of incidents we attend, the Service does not underestimate the benefits of working with other emergency teams and carrying out site-specific training. Rescue partners include the Avon and Somerset Cliff Rescue team, South West Ambulance Service Trust, Hazardous Area Response Team (HART) and Dartmoor Search and Rescue to name but a few.

In considering the mutual support provided across agencies this article will explore some of the techniques DSFRS employ to support joint working.

Arizona Vortex can be used to create a high deviation to assist with the recovery of the stretcher.

Arizona Vortex can be used to create a high deviation to assist with the recovery of the stretcher.

Can we help other responders recover the casualty?

The priority in all instances is that a rescue team is able to stabilise and secure the casualty until more resources are able to come to their aid. Very often this may be the volunteer organisations that are usually far better positioned to respond quicker and have a greater knowledge of the local area and risks involved than we do.

In these scenarios it may be possible for the FRS SRT to help facilitate the safe outcome of the rescue by using some of the equipment carried on the appliances such as the Arizona Vortex.

In this instance the casualty has been packaged into the Titan CMC basket stretcher by the first attending rescue team, but challenging circumstances prevented recovery of the casualty.

The first attendance lines would have been at ground level, which would have made an edge transition back over the top very difficult and certainly very challenging for the rescuer.

While the casualty is being placed into the stretcher the SRT was able to build the Vortex tripod at the top of the cliff and pick up the rescuer’s main line. With the use of a pulley attached to a small hauling system they were able to raise the main line up off the ground and create an artificial high deviation, allowing a much safer and easier transition of the edge.

The picture shows the Vortex being used in a Bi-Pod orientation, although you can’t see the back leg.

We use a top belayed system in the service when working with the stretcher and the attendant is attached to this system; however, they have capability of moving up and down the lines independently if needed.

You can see there is a short hauling system in place that allows us to ‘pick up’ the main line from the ground, but the safety line is always allowed to stay as low as possible to reduce any resultant should a dynamic event occur.

In some cases, it may be necessary to put in additional measures to reduce any issues caused by the safety line coming up off the ground as in the picture.

This can be achieved by simply attaching a safety line that runs through the Vortex head.

Crews using the Arizona Vortex and a top belayed system for a stretcher rescue.

Crews using the Arizona Vortex and a top belayed system for a stretcher rescue.

Water rescue and assisting other responders searching for a casualty

With recent weather-related events playing such a large part in everyday lives it is unsurprising that this has had a direct impact on how DSFRS needs to prepare for its role with Specialist Rescue.

There appears to be a variety of views on what is an acceptable risk. How many times have the Fire and Rescue Service been called out to help a drivers and passengers up to their windows in flood water only to have the occupier say that they didn’t think it was that deep?

The problems associated with this are that we are increasingly expected to commit more crews into waterborne environments and with that always comes a risk.

DSFRS has been working recently with colleagues in the Dartmoor Search and Rescue teams and assisted with several missing-person searches that have occurred.

In these situations we have been able to assist in the search of large areas of water and ditches, whether it is static or fast-flowing water.

When faced with water rescues of this nature the teams are able to use a high-line system to manoeuvre a tethered boat, or in the case shown in the picture, a rescue sled, into a working position.

With the system in place the boat can be moved left or right across the river and then moved forward or back depending on the situation.

With the two operatives in this picture working on a rescue sled they are able to secure a casualty or even search for a casualty in an area that may be difficult to reach or view from the river bank.

Although in place the system would still operate without the tag lines attached to rear of the rescue sled, but if they are able to be put in, they can give extra steerage and control to the craft.

What does the future hold?

With so many organisations in the Devon and Somerset area carrying out such important work in the rescue world, and with so many professionals in their fields with so much experience, can we share our collective information and expertise more readily.

There is a willingness for more organisations to work together more effectively to achieve a common goal of ultimate patient care. Using skills and resources best suited to any given scenario we can remove the risk of struggling or making do where additional appropriate resources are available. DSFRS values its relationships with other rescue partners with a mutual willingness to work together, ensuring the best response available no matter which organisation they may come from.

For more information, go to www.dsfrs.gov.uk

Top image: High-line and rescue sled used across the river can be used to search difficult areas.

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Nathan Rose is a Firefighter and Technical Rescue Supervisor with Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service based at Bridgwater fire station in Somerset. Nathan has 25 years, Fire and Rescue experience and has spent the last ten years as a member of the Service’s Specialist Rescue Team with wide experience in all aspects of Technical Rescue.