Three Days with the Fire Bridage

Last week I attended an Emergency Planning and Salvage course in Dudley, near Birmingham. Jointly run by the National Trust, English Heritage and Historic England the 3-day course covered all the essentials of planning, protection and response for an emergency situation at a heritage site or property. We were lucky enough to be hosted by Dudley Community Fire Station, which has a Fire Service training facility, and being in that environment really helped us to realise just how much the emergency services do, and how grateful we should be for their help when disaster strikes.

The aim of the course was to understand the basic principles of Emergency Planning – anticipation, prevention, protection, response – and how to implement these effectively at our properties/sites.

Working directly with Dudley Fire Brigade we were kitted out with uniform and taught how to put breathing apparatus on. We then entered a smoke filled building, each person holding onto the one in front,  to get a feel for what it is like for the Fire Brigade when they are called to the scene of a a fire. It was so dark that you could barely see the person a few feet in front of you, let alone any objects or furniture that might be around you! I had to try really hard to keep my breathing calm and steady as the experience was quite claustrophobic. Despite the fact that we weren’t experiencing the kind of temperatures that the Fire Brigade do (a domestic house fire can get up to 1000 ºC ) we all found an appreciation for the incredible work that they do to help save lives as well as our historic buildings.

Me (centre) and the team preparing for the smoke exercise

Me (centre) and the team preparing for the smoke exercise

 

About to put the breathing apparatus on!

About to put the breathing apparatus on!

We also got a chance to experience a flood situation in a building; we had to work in two teams to try and control the flow of water coming through the building by creating a trough from two ladders and a tarpaulin, diverting the water over the balcony down to the ground below, where the second team was waiting to channel the water away from the drains, in case it was contaminated and prevent it from causing any further damage. I was amazed by the sheer force of the water and how hard we had to work to create an effective system to divert it, getting soaked in the process!

Controlling water exercise

Controlling water exercise

Controlling water exercise

Controlling water exercise

The following day we focused more on object handling and how to care for objects once they have reached Recovery, where they undergo ‘triage’ or ‘first aid’. We also looked at the most effective ways to pack items; ensuring that wet items are separated from those that are dry and that items are packed effectively to prevent any further damage.

Packing crates

Packing crates

We also looked at ‘priority items’; these are singled out  as being they key items to salvage in the event of a fire or flood. They are often unique, valuable, vulnerable or indigenous to the property or site they come from. They are the items that will be salvaged first, either by the Fire Brigade or by us.

In the afternoon we undertook a full scale practical exercise with the Fire Brigade and we had been given the following exercise to work to:

Our exercise scenario

Our exercise scenario

We also had an opportunity to look inside ‘Dudley Manor Museum’ before hand to familiarise ourselves with the contents of the building, just as we would be familiar with our own properties and collections.

Inside before the operation began!

Inside before the operation began!

We had all be assigned roles the previous day, and I had been put in charge of Communications & Welfare. I was responsible for assisting the Incident Commander, recording all communications that took place verbally and over the radio into an incident log. In addition, I had to ensure that the team took breaks and that they received plenty of water and chocolate to keep them going! I also had to make sure that they weren’t getting sun-burnt or dehydrated, as we were working in pretty hot conditions!

Taking notes for the incident log

Taking notes for the incident log

The Salvage team, lead by the Salvage Coordinator, were responsible to liaising with the Fire Brigade to begin removing items from the building. It was important for them to focus on the recovery of the ‘priority items’ first, and they worked with the Fire Brigade to ensure that this was done in a timely fashion – 12 minutes to be exact!

Briefing the Fire Brigade in preparation for salvage

Briefing the Fire Brigade in preparation for salvage

It was important for everyone to work together and the salvage team did a brilliant job explaining correct handling techniques to the Fire Brigade so that no further damage could occur from mishandling any of the objects. Some of the members of the Fire Brigade working with us had not experienced a salvage situation or worked with historic collections before, so they were leaning along with us!

Saving our priceless painting!

Saving our priceless painting!

Any items that were saved from the building were taken to a safe area away from the building, where the Recovery team could begin ‘triage’. The Recovery Coordinator would asses the condition of the items and then send them either to the wet or dry areas, where the Recovery team worked hard to remedy any damage that had been caused. The wet Recovery team created an effective wind tunnel for drying items, using polythene sheets over tables and fans to help with air circulation. They also used blotting paper and kitchen towel to help remove excess water from the items.

Blotting books and paper

Blotting books and paper

The dry Recovery team worked with the Documentation Officer to ensure that all items matched up with the inventory and that they were safely packed away, ready for storage or conservation.

The Recovery team hard at work!

The Recovery team hard at work!

It is really important to be prepared for an emergency especially as they can occur at any time; Polesden Lacey had to stage a major salvage operation in 1960, when a fire broke out in the roof of the mansion. As the house was open to the public at the time, many of the visitors helped the staff and Fire Brigade members to salvage many items of the collection.

'The Paterson Children' by Henry Raeburn being salvaged by the fire brigade in 1960

‘The Paterson Children’ by Henry Raeburn being salvaged by the fire brigade in 1960

It was interesting to see how some of the basic principles of salvage really haven’t changed, and how even simple things such as the use of clever knots and ropes can help to save our collections when disaster strikes.

Fire Brigade using ropes to lower a chair from the building during the fire in 1960

Fire Brigade using ropes to lower a chair from the building during the fire in 1960

I found the course extremely rewarding and I look forward to helping run new training for all members of staff at Polesden Lacey to help them feel prepared! If you want to read more about last year’s salvage exercise you can read Claire’s post here.

 

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