The Technical Rescue Unit (TRU) within West Sussex, like the other 20 specialist search and rescue teams in fire services around the UK, was formed in 2006 as part of central government's New Dimension programme. However, the make-up of the West Sussex unit differs from that of any other FRS in terms of its size and structure as well as the role it carries out.
West Sussex is funded to provide the strategic reserve for the national Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) so instead of the standard crewing structure of fourteen wholetime and sixteen retained crew, West Sussex has a comparatively small team of just 12 personnel as well as Tilly, the USAR dog.
Working to a variable crewing system and providing the evening and weekend cover on a rota basis, the TRU is based at Horley Fire Station and is led by Station Manager St John Stanley. Whilst the team may be small, St John believes it is also unique in that it is the only TRU in the UK that is fully trained to carry out all five of the specialist elements - USAR, rope rescue, water rescue, animal rescue as well going oversees for international search and rescue missions with recent deployments to Haiti and Indonesia.
St John Stanley said: "As far as I am aware, there isn't another technical rescue unit in Britain that does all 5 disciplines within one team. This is partly because many other services already had existing rope, or water rescue teams before they set up their Technical Rescue Unit. Because in West Sussex we didn't, it effectively meant we had a blank sheet of paper and it gave us an opportunity to identify our key areas of need within the Service - particularly in dealing with incidents at height and on the water - so it was appropriate that the Unit's role should incorporate those aspects. In the 5 years that the TRU has been operating it has developed from delivering urban search and rescue, rope rescue and water rescue to more recently incorporating large animal rescue, which we now do exclusively on behalf of our service.
"I think there are distinct advantages to being trained in all the elements and delivering them from within one team. Apart from the obvious cost saving of only mobilising a single team, we are frequently able to use the same equipment, apply the same systems and use the same techniques across a wide range of different incidents, both domestically and overseas. One day we may be rescuing a child stuck up a tree having to employ rope systems because of limited access, the next day we could be setting up a similar rope system to aid with the evacuation of casualties from caravan sites affected by widespread flooding.
"In the 5 months we have been responding to the large animal rescues we have had some high profile incidents and successes. The transition was made relatively smoothly because of the prior knowledge and experience in the other disciplines.
"The principals of lifting and moving a fifteen tonne tracked vehicle off of a casualty are the same as lifting as lifting a cow out of a ditch, or in one recent case a horse out of a swimming pool! During the period of snow in December, we rescued Ben, a 4 year-old horse who had wandered unwittingly from a neighbouring field onto the snow-covered tarpaulin covering a private outdoor swimming pool, falling through and getting trapped in the icy water. Because we cover a large rural area in West Sussex we have been fortunate enough to purchase a training horse, a life size 200kg mannequin, which we can set up in training scenarios exactly as we would encounter them in reality.
"Of course, there have been some additional skills and techniques to learn, increasing our knowledge about animal behaviour for instance, which we've already had put to the test on a number of occasions. Most notably when we were confronted with a racehorse, that having already thrown his rider at Brighton Racecourse, had partially kicked through and become trapped in the cab of a horsebox on the busy A23. That was a potentially highly dangerous situation but while the unpredictability of the horse was a new element for us, we were using the same USAR equipment that we have been trained to a high standard with.
"Our comparatively small team size, the variety of incidents that we attend and the opportunity to work with a host of other agencies locally, nationally and internationally has helped us to achieve a very low attrition rate, with only one unit member choosing to leave the team since its inception. That has had a positive influence on our training and has meant we have been able to really push the boundaries and test our skills to the limit, go to literally even greater heights and into more confined spaces as we have developed our skills together. We may be a small team but we are able to hold our own and deliver a high standard across all the specialist disciplines and I think that is something West Sussex can be very proud of."
Posted 16.19pm, 02.03.11