Inside the Quake Zone: Simulation gives North East firefighters disaster mission rescuing skills

"It's dark. It's dusty. It's scary".

The words of one North East firefighter who has taken part in a realistic scenario based on what rescuers are working through in Turkey and Syria, following two earthquakes that have killed at least 45,000 people.

Around 30 members of a special unit of the Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service spent hours under a rubble mound at a specialist training facility in Washington as part of the exercise.

Navigating through dark, confined, unstable spaces to locate several live casualties, the members of the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team were honing vital and specialist skills they could use in a number of disaster zones.

Firefighters plan the rescue operation next to the training rubble pile. Credit: ITV News

Firefighter Michael McKitten, said: "It’s very difficult, very difficult."

He added: "You’re talking confined spaces... you’re talking three or four in there to rescue, plus the casualty, plus your equipment. It's going to be very tight in there, very hot, very sweaty, a dark, dusty environment and scary as well."

His colleague Chris Kennedy added: "There’s elements of it that are really realistic. It is a broken down building that they’ve just moved here. It’s a live rubble pile and there’s an element of risk on it, so we try to mitigate the risk, where we can, and do the training as best we can."

In a real scenario, dogs would search the rubble to locate survivors. Credit: ITV News

The USAR needs to keep up this training incase it is deployed to incidents in the UK, like collapsed buildings, train crashes and explosions.

They will not be deployed to Syria and Turkey as there are currently 77 British firefighters in the ISAR (International Search and Rescue) already helping with the search for survivors, but the state-of-the-art training facility in Washington does give them the same skills that could one day be deployed to an event like the earthquake, if called upon.

Lynsey McVay, assistant chief fire officer at the service, said the transferable skills learned during the training session gives her firefighters the ability to work in any given disaster environment.

She said: "Firefighters never know what they are going to face. From day-to-day, they can be mobilised to anything from large scale fires to mass building collapses. Recently there was a deployment of the search and rescue team in Lancashire and that was due to a gas leak, a gas explosion in a property.

"Urban search and rescue teams mobilise for things like that to support the rescue efforts, so it's enormously important."

Merlin the search dog locates survivor in rubble Credit: ITV News

Two-year-old Labrador Merlin is also part of the rescue team, using his senses to locate any sign of life within the collapsed building. If he comes across something of interest he sits, barking loudly to get his handler's attention.

Handler Steve Carr, who lives with Merlin, said the dog should always be the "first tool out of the box" when it comes to rescue missions.

He added: "The dog can narrow a victim’s location down to within the space of a couple of metres. So the dog will go on, sniff out the live scent, so if there’s any exhaled breath, the dog will locate where that is. Once it locates it, it will indicate by barking, so the dog will sit and bark. I’ll then reward the dog, which lets us know where the casualties potentially are and that’s when we can start our operations."

A firefighter searching in the underground tunnel with a stretcher. Credit: ITV News

The facility includes a number of pods connected by 180ft of concrete pipework that are covered in rubble. The huge structure simulates the scene of a real-life disaster and snakes through the training yard.

Ian Robinson, who is running the training scenario, said: "There are only two or three facilities that are similar to this in the UK.

"This one is unique, because we’ve got the facility to lift the rubble off and we can reconfigure the layout of the pipes and the underground tunnels and put the rubble back on again, so whilst it’s quite an engineering task to do that, every few years or so, we’re able to reconfigure the whole layout of the facility, so we never get a duplication of training and we never get a duplication of scenario."

Firefighters planning their rescue mission during the training exercise. Credit: ITV News

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