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Activities and Events at St Michael’s

Fire Brigade Evacuation Exercise at St Michael’s Church

In the summer months of 2013, passers-by will have seen a Hampshire Fire and Rescue operation at St Michael’s, with a hydraulic platform being used to undertake a rescue from the tower.  But, there was no need to be alarmed, this was a drill, designed to give the fire officers experience in using their rescue equipment and especially their hydraulic platform, in a real life location.  So, what did this exercise involve?

The first exercise was to rescue a dummy out of the bell ringers’ ringing chamber.  The officer in charge had arranged for a 40kg dummy to be placed on the floor of the ringing chamber, to simulate a casualty who had collapsed.  The Fire and Rescue officers carrying out the exercise had no knowledge of what they would face when they had run up the spiral stone staircase into the ringing chamber – and once there, and having considered the ‘patient’ they had to decide how best to get the casualty out.

When rescues take place, the public naturally expect to see casualties being hurriedly removed to an ambulance, and for that to head off to the hospital as soon as possible after it has arrived on the scene.  But, the Fire and Rescue officers said that the evacuation and transfer to the ambulance service would only begin once the patient has been stabilised.  So when we see the Fire and Rescue or indeed the ambulance at incidents, we should not be alarmed if they seem to be taking a long time – this is all part of doing the right thing for the patient.

Having decided that the ‘patient’ in the ringing chamber should be evacuated the fire officers had to decide on the route – down the spiral staircase, or up through the windows and onto the church roof.  The decision in this case was that it is better to go up and through the window than to use the spiral stairs – one reason is that it is harder to control the descent of the casualty going down stairs, and there is always a danger that the rescuer at the back could be pulled down the stairs, landing on top of the patient and his colleague! The other is that the spiral staircase is too narrow to take a stretcher.

The decision to evacuate through the window meant that there was in theory a quick escape – just manhandling a stretcher through a window opening, onto the roof, where the hydraulic platform could be used to carry the patient down to ground level.

The ‘patient’ was thus loaded onto a stretcher, and firmly fastened onto it, because the stretcher had to be lifted at an angle, in order to fit through the narrow window.  Unlike the comedy capers sometimes seen in films, our Fire and Rescue officers ensured that the patient was not going to fall off the stretcher.

In a serious fire, the fire officers may need to use their axes and other tools to widen window or door openings, but for the purpose of the exercise they took great care not to damage the historic fabric of the church, including the leaded windows.  But it was surprising how quickly a large stretcher carrying a heavy casualty could be lifted and manipulated through the narrow windows from the ringing chamber and onto the roof.

The hydraulic platform was extended, and reached the roof of the church with ease.  The controls were very finely activated, and the platform was placed just above the roof, where the patient could be loaded onto the platform.  On the photograph the patient can be seen lying on a stretcher, firmly fastened to the hydraulic platform.  Although the hydraulic platform arm extended right back down into the car park, the platform itself was rock steady – which would give huge confidence to any real life patient that would have to take a journey down off the roof.  In our exercise, the job was complete once the platform reached the ground, but in a real life situation, the ‘patient’ would be handed over to the care of the Ambulance service.

The Fire and Rescue service made good use of their time with us to carry out a second exercise.  This was a simulation of a rescue from the very top of the tower.  If a bell ringer was to be injured in the belfry itself, for the same reasons as before, the Fire and Rescue officers would probably take the casualty up to the very top of the tower, so they could evacuate safely and quickly using the hydraulic platform – or, if the height of the building is too great even for the hydraulic platform – to use alternative methods to get the patient to the safety of ground level.

During this part of the exercise, the health and safety of the Fire and Rescue service was paramount, and because the officers were going to go into and around the belfry – the actual location of the bells, the bells were all arranged in their safe ‘rung down’ state.  When the bells are being rung, they are in what is known as an ‘up’ state, where the mouth of the bell points upwards, and finely balanced ready to swing under their own weight on the pull of the rope.  In a practice environment, having the bells in the ‘up’ or unsafe position would be too dangerous for an exercise – the largest bell in our tower, called the ‘tenor’, weighs over 14 hundredweight (almost three quarters of a ton), and if that was to swing under its own weight and strike one of the officers, it could be fatal.  The bell ringers showed the Fire and Rescue officers the belfry, and how the orientation of the bells could be checked and thus their safety could be assured.

The ‘patient’ was carried up to the roof, the hydraulic platform extended – again easily reaching the very top of the tower, and the ‘casualty’ lowered this time on a rope into the car park – not because the hydraulic platform could not reach the patient, but so that the officers had experience of alternatives – which might one day be needed if for example the hydraulic platform could not be used.  This particular part of the rescue looked more traumatic, and few people would willingly volunteer to be lowered over the edge of a church tower on a rope – But, in a life threatening emergency arose, it would be good to know that our Fire and Rescue have practiced safely lowering casualties by rope.

There were many members of the public watching the exercise and enjoying the summer sunshine – but spare a thought for the Fire and Rescue officers who all had to wear their heavy protective clothing, and also to run up and down the narrow spiral staircase.

In return for the support given to the Fire and Rescue service in carrying out their training exercise, the officers helped the ringers to identify the potential risks of fire in the tower, so that a fire risk assessment could be prepared.

Reassuringly, there were few potential risks and these were well managed.  As is usual, the fire officers emphasised the simple yet incredibly effective fire safety equipment available for purchase in all good DIY stores - smoke detectors, which give valuable warning if there is smoke – possibly one of the first signs that there is a fire.  Even in a tower constructed mainly of historic stonework, there may be combustible materials – and a smoke detector should always be considered.