Yesterday was fire-fighting theory. Today was practice.

Steamboat Willy

Along the side of the runway at Gibraltar airport, there’s a cluster of black shipping containers welded together. Apparently, this is Steamboat Willy. Willy has a control room, propane tanks, and a burner that can heat the room it’s in to 280°C. For context, the oven in my kitchen at home, given a full preheated run-up, only goes up to 250°C.

We were tasked to enter as a team with a hose, locate the fire and attempt to deal with it. We’d already been shown how to safely make our way through a fire situation, and we’d actually been walked through the structure and route we’d be following beforehand. This was for the experience of actually having to take a team and a hose through a hot, dark space to locate and attack a fire. This would also be the first time we’d used BA (Breathing Apparatus).

The BA shuffle. Luckily, everyone else either can’t see you or they’re doing it themselves.

We BA shuffled the ladder to the first floor roof and hauled 25m of hose up there too. You don’t want to be trying to drag the hose round corners and doorways when you’re in there; it’s too heavy and it’ll snag everywhere. Far better to move it as you go. We wetted the entrance door to get an idea of how hot the room behind it was, briefly opened the door to check it was safe to enter, and then moved into the structure.

The only lights inside were in the red emergency shutdown buttons, so we had to BA shuffle our way through. Before we’d even reached the stairs down, I realised I was breathing far too hard and burning through my air. I found it really hard to control that. Even though it was easy enough to slow it down (scuba diving gives you lots of practice at controlled breathing), every few minutes I’d notice I was breathing hard again, and before we completed the exercise my BA kit’s “you’re about to run out of air” whistle would be going off.

In the burner room one of our instructors was managing the fire controls so he could vary what we were faced with, from bursts of flame in the corners to sheets of fire flowing across the whole ceiling while we each tried our best to keep it suppressed.

It’s only just struck me that even with 3 of us fully prepared for a simple static exercise with no complications (i.e. not sinking, no heavy seas, nothing else exploding etc), and one of our number having 20+ years of Royal Navy fire fighting training behind him, we still didn’t actually manage to extinguish the fire.

I spent 10 minutes in a superheated oven with no more ill effect than a horribly sweaty set of clothes.

Watching the instructor demo how he’d attack the fire was eye-opening. He used far, far less water than we’d been using (too much water inside a boat is a Bad Thing whether it’s on fire or not) and to much greater effect. It was really impressive to see what someone with decades of real-world fire-fighting experience can do, and it inspired confidence that it is possible to effect significant control of a blaze if you know what you’re doing.

Blind rescue

Next to Willy is a nondescript cinder-block building where we’d be practicing search and rescue methods. We didn’t go inside this one before the exercise, so we had no idea of the internal layout or what was in there. The task this time was to clear the building and rescue the 9 casualties inside. By this point we’ve been training with these folks long enough to know that if they say there are 9 casualties, there’s absolutely no way it’s going to be 9 even though we’d carried the dummies to the building ourselves and only taken 9 of them.

Visibility is really bad inside a smoke-filled building, which we were going to simulate by wearing blacked-out goggles. For me this is where the BA shuffle finally clicked. When you can’t see where you are or where you’re going, having a solid set of rules for finding your way through a space while checking it for hazards and casualties is invaluable. My number 2 and I not only found and rescued 4 of the 12 casualties, but each time we came out, I was able to describe the layout of the spaces we’d cleared to the Entry Control Officer, the placement of obstacles and landmarks we’d discovered, and doors we’d found that still needed to be cleared. And we did this despite having un-goggled instructors screaming and yelling, banging us around the helmet, moving furniture around, pulling over cabinets to block corridors etc.

The instructor team instilling mistrust of provided info (e.g. knowing it was never going to be 9 casualties) was noteworthy; the teaching team here are adept at finding all manner of ways to eke out every nugget of learning experience from everything. Amy and I located an instructor playing the Captain of the boat and as we were bringing him out he told the next team coming in “this room’s clear guys, move on to the next one”, and we both immediately told that team to ignore him and that the room still needed clearing. Score one more casualty.

We’re the search and rescue team. It’s not clear until we know it is. In a real rescue we can’t take a casualty’s word for it, and that’s going to stick with me now.

This has been an incredible experience. I have massive respect for the people who choose to do this professionally. This is seriously hard work where genuine experience can only be gained in high risk situations.