Preparing for the unexpected: a positive outcome in the year of the pandemic?

Watching the biggest story of our time unfolding, waiting for the daily update on the number of deaths due to Covid-19 and trying to get an understanding and perspective on the issue and its long-term impact on the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS), can be difficult.

The fire and rescue services have been doing their bit, but controversially only at what could be conceived as the margins: collecting prescriptions and medicines, delivering food for the vulnerable and, more challenging, the recovery of those who have died from the Coronavirus and their transportation to temporary mortuaries.

It could be argued that the Fire and Rescue Service has been an afterthought in the grand scheme of things, swamped by the 1.5 million National Health Service workers, 750,000 government enthused volunteers, plus the hundreds of thousands of workers in the healthcare sector. Quite rightly, the government has focused on those organisations that are distinctly “in the front line” of the immediate risk. But are there roles that the Fire and Rescue Service could be carrying out? Looking also to the future, how can the service morph itself once again, extending its remit to carry out vital new roles that support the community’s health and wellbeing while maintaining its core fire and rescue functions?

Or is it the case that the service will remain as a short-term, blue-light emergency service, fossilised and largely ignored by government and kept in the box marked “in case of short-term emergency, break glass”?

The 50,000 or so firefighters in the UK have a seemingly diminishing requirement in their core activities: firefighting and rescue. As a result of their success in reducing the number of fires, fire deaths and injuries, they are rarely a focus of government attention in terms of the big picture in the UK. But, even if they are only seen as “first in, first out” response service, they have an enormous additional capacity (remember the “latent capacity”?) to deliver extended services in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. In terms of unprecedented incidents, Coronavirus could hardly be called unexpected.

For more than a decade, a flu pandemic was planned for but usually only in terms of maintaining at least a worse case basic level of cover in many FRSs. Nationally, a flu pandemic was accepted as the biggest risk to the UK and was usually indicated as being a very high risk in most local resilience forum (LRF) community risk registers. The infectious disease scenario (Ebola, Coronavirus) was seen as equally likely but the impact was not expected to be as severe.


“How can the Service morph itself once again, extending its remit to carry out vital new roles that support the community’s health and wellbeing?”


The fact that Covid-19 was a “slow burn” event, somehow allowed it to drift and not really get anchored in the UK consciousness as being “really serious” outside the infectious disease scientific community in the way a rapidly developing (which can now be redefined as an event that takes months to become recognised as such) imminent threat is dealt with.


The FRS is particularly good at dealing with unplanned events, even those that are rare or even unprecedented and at the distant ends of the operational spectrum, helping to lead and coordinate a response involving a wide range of agencies. In the 1950s and 1960s, the FRS was forced to innovate on the spot to deal with several complex incidents in the UK that were unprecedented, making things up as they went along. Individuals in some cases had to o put aside their own personal fears and real risk of physical and mental damage as they worked for the greater community good.

Today we take the use of nuclear power stations for granted, supplying around 30 per cent of the UK demand for electricity. It remains a controversial source despite being the most regulated power generating industry of all with a good safety record, with the benefits of limited impact upon the environment and very little CO2 emissions (or miners’ deaths, deaths associated with pollution from fossil fuel burning etc).


“There may be a role for the FRS – 1,500 community-based inoculation centres could be easily made available with around 50,000 trained staff to support health services”


In the 1950s, things were different. Nuclear power was a by-product of an arms race for weapons of mass destruction. The design of power stations, particularly the reactors, was such that the possibility for accidents was designed out and “fail safe” systems existed to shut down the reactor if all else failed. The potential for a fire in a reactor existed but not one that was readily anticipated. At Windscale, one of the first reactors in the UK, the world’s first serious nuclear accident occurred on October 7, 1957. During routine maintenance work the temperature of uranium elements (tubes of uranium pellets) began to rise unexpectedly and rapidly. By the afternoon of October 10, the pile was on fire. In line with the “fail safe” procedures, operations staff struggled to remove unaffected elements while scientific staff evaluated various strategies for extinguishing the fire that included shutting off the air supply or making the atmosphere inert using carbon dioxide or argon.


Calder Hall, the world’s first full-scale atomic power station, is here shown nearing completion. In the background are the chimneys and works of the plutonium factory of Windscale

At 23:30 on October 10, the fire appeared to be spreading. As the plans for dealing with the anticipated hazard seemed to not be meeting the planners’ expectations, it became clear that it was possible water might need to be used and the Windscale Fire Brigade was summoned. Firefighters watched while process operators removed elements from the hot zone to create a fire break.

At 01:00 on Friday October 11, the Chief Constable of Cumberland was notified of the fire and a pre-determined emergency plan was put into operation. A tanker full of carbon dioxide was pumped into the core of the reactor as a final attempt to smother the fire, but the blaze continued to intensify. Fearful of the flames burning through the biological shield, the scientists reluctantly opted for the option of last resort – water – not knowing what the consequences would be. As firefighters should know, water on burning magnesium causes the evolution of hydrogen which increases the rate of the heat being produced and, in some circumstances, can lead to a hydrogen explosion.

As the sun rose on the Friday morning, four lines of hose were connected to adapted scaffolding poles that had been fed into the core of the reactor. At 09:00, following a delay caused by the change of shift at the fire station, and with great trepidation, water was injected into the reactor core. When the anticipated explosion from the ignition of the hydrogen and carbon monoxide failed to materialise, the scientists knew they had won the battle.


A diagram of the nuclear reactor that burned in the Windscale fire


Within 24 hours the fire was extinguished and a catastrophe had been averted. There remained, however, the problem that particles of radioactivity had been released in the form of iodine (I131) and polonium (Po210) which had been released in the early stages as attempts were made to release heat through ventilation chimneys. Large areas were contaminated, food and milk bans were initiated and a massive clean-up was initiated.

Fortunately, the scale of the incident was not that of the magnitude of Chernobyl 29 years later and was resolved relatively easily despite improvisation being the order of the day. Nevertheless, it is worth pondering if, in the face of a similar serious “Chernobyl-type” event occurring in 21st century Britain, what action would be taken before a “suitable and sufficient” risk assessment had been undertaken or would a courageous (or reckless) disregard for personal safety in the interests of the greater good still be the order of the day?


‘No Nuclear Power’ demonstration ends at Trafalgar Square, London



On October 21, 1966, after a period of heavy rain, including three inches in the previous three days, a water saturated slurry and debris slipped away from the main pile of the Merthyr Vale Colliery’s tip number seven, perched above the small mining village of Aberfan in the Taff Valley in South Wales, four miles due south of Merthyr Tydfil. The fluid, black mass cascaded down the slope of the mountain at a speed later estimated to be 21 mph, roaring like thunder.

The momentum of the body of the slurry overwhelmed two farmhouses and their occupants before slamming most of its 100,000 M3 into the Pantglas Junior School. As the children were singing ‘All things bright and beautiful’ in preparation for the start of half-term, windows shattered and let in the black mass, collapsing the stone-built structure, trapping many of the 240 pupils and their teachers. In the silence that followed, those who had seen what had happened started calling the emergency services.

The first call to the fire brigade was received at around 0925. Merthyr County Borough Fire Brigade sent all its appliances to what was described as a “landslide ” by the caller. As they arrived, firefighters were stunned by the unimaginable vision of destruction in front of them, images that would haunt many for decades to come.

As they started to make sense of what they could see and put together what had happened and what needed to be done, they began work to rescue the trapped and make their way into the devasted school. Miners from the afternoon and night shifts at Merthyr Vale Colliery, resting in their homes, joined firefighters in burrowing into the centre of the school, pulling out survivors and delicately lifting the bodies of the dead children, some as young as five, out of the wet slag.

Following procedures barely remembered from the days of the Blitz and rescue squads, calls for total silence at the school allowed firefighters, mines rescue teams and miners, some of whose own children were missing and injured, to listen for sounds of life under the debris. One boy, pinned by his legs at a low point in the building under a collapsed wall, was being tended to by several firefighters and miners. Water from two mains crushed by the on rush of debris poured water into the building and the level was rising rapidly. Fireman Len Haggert kept the boy’s head above the water by holding his head. As the water threatened to flow over his nose, the miners and firemen made one last effort to lift the stone wall and managed to release his legs and pulled him out with seconds to spare. He was one of the last to be rescued.


Aerial photograph of the spoil tips on the above Aberfan shortly after the disaster


By 11:00 the last of the survivors had been rescued: all that remained to do was the recovery of the bodies. Of the 240 in the school at the time, 109 pupils died as well as five teachers. Twenty others died in the two farmhouses, swept away by the waste and in some of the houses in Moy Road, where 18 houses were destroyed. Fire services from all over south and west Wales, as well as those from the western edge of England, all helped with the recovery of fatalities from the destroyed buildings. This disaster remains the worse loss of life in the UK mainland since the second world war.

Community Support Role

The ability of the Fire Service to respond to such unpredictable incidents was not in doubt and despite the changes in the last 50 years, the culture of the service to respond to incidents remains both doable and practicable. If an incident commander on the Isle of Wight wanted 100 pumps for an incident, they would eventually get them despite the challenges involved. When it comes to some of the less obvious events, there can be structural and practical issues which can prevent the service adding as much benefit to the community as it is capable of.

For many unplanned events, the ability to get large numbers of “boots on the ground” in short order means that the service should be the first port of call where numbers of bodies are required as part of a large response.

For extended incidents and events including the current catastrophe, they are less likely to be at the forefront of society’s collective mind. The vision of the service as a “rapid response service” tends to downplay the role it could have in more protracted events, particularly in the UK.

In many overseas services, the FRS has a role in supporting the community by assisting in the decontamination of facilities and helping transport of casualties as part of an ongoing and formal arrangement. In the US, Phoenix Fire Department undertakes inoculation programmes at its fire stations: imagine, in the event of a vaccine for Coronavirus becoming available for mass immunisation, 1,500 community immunisation facilities (also known as fire stations) could be made available, (with the blessing of the NHS and the representative bodies) and staffed by trained firefighters.

A pandemic has been the number one national risk for over a decade in terms of likelihood, severity and impact (an emerging infectious disease was previously determined in the UK National Risk Register – in 2017 – to be less of an impact, judged to be similar to the effects of space weather, air pollution and heatwave). The response to the outbreak, at least at the moment, appears to be chaotic and disjointed and time will tell if it has become the signal failure that some predict. Do we still believe we could still successfully manage an immediate (or longer term) response to a serious nuclear incident, a Litvinenko attack, a natural disaster such as the Ironbridge Gorge collapsing into the River Severn in Shropshire, or even a disastrous fire on a scale beyond that of Grenfell Tower? Perhaps it is a case of the immediate we can do, the longer term we struggle with.

Service Role

In a future world where pandemics and wider health issues become increasingly likely, there may be a role for the FRS – 1,500 community-based inoculation centres could be easily made available with around 50,000 trained staff to support health services. The Fire and Rescue Service has capacity to deliver these services.

It is entirely feasible that if the service and the representative bodies do not grab this opportunity to mainstream health prevention, protection and response into its core functions, then it is more and not less likely that it will be subsumed into a larger emergency response organisation with the Ambulance Service or Police Service taking charge as is the case in many services overseas.

Leaders should not be afraid to break the cycle of the benign neglect that has cursed the service for decades. The current health care disaster should provide all with an opportunity to define what the service can deliver in the future to benefit the community – all we need to do is remove our blinkers and prejudices.

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