A vital component of the fire and rescue service under threat


FROM the smallest nooks and crannies to towering cranes and high-rise buildings - the Battle Rope Rescue Unit reaches the places that others can’t.

Whether rescuing people trapped in wells, mud, silos and even funiculars, Battle firefighters have seen it all over the last few years.

There are just two Rope Rescue Units in the whole of East Sussex, with the other based in Bexhill.

When called out to an emergency, both units attend to provide support for one another and ensure that the minimum five operatives needed to crew the rope rescue is met.

Bexhill was the East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service’s original Rope Rescue Unit.

Back in January 1998, the Bexhill unit was called to rescue a 13-year-old boy who was trapped in a silo filled with linseed on farmland in Robertsbridge.

The team battled to keep the boy’s airways clear before suspending him on a line while the side of the silo was cut to allow the linseed to drain out.

It was shortly after this dramatic rescue, which hit the national headlines, the second Rope Rescue Unit arrived at Battle.

Battle firefighter and rope rescue instructor Gary Hill explains: “Bexhill did not have enough personnel to maintain 24/7 capability so they brought us on board.

“If we were not here, Bexhill would struggle to maintain coverage.”

Over the last 15 years of service, the Battle Rope Rescue Unit has taken part in all manner of rescues alongside the team’s Bexhill colleagues.

The Rope Rescue Unit played a crucial role in saving a woman who had fallen down a well in Marley Lane, Battle, in May last year.

And the team has also helped man’s best friend out of a few scrapes over the years, rescuing dogs from mud at Rye Harbour and the cliff face at Galley Hill, not to mention the concerned owners who got into difficulty when trying to rescue their pets themselves.

Because Battle and Bexhill are the only two Rope Rescue Units in the area - with the nearest alternatives in Crawley and Deal - they are regularly called out to incidents way beyond Rother.

The chalk pits at Lewes are the scenes of regular rope rescues and the units frequently come to the aid of paragliders who have fallen and injured themselves at Firle Beacon and Mount Caburn, as well as people who have become trapped in crevices at Harrison’s Rocks, near Tunbridge Wells.

The crew also used to take part in body recovery at the foot of Beachy Head on a regular basis.

Although work on the cliffs is now often carried out by the coastguard, the Battle Rope Rescue Unit provides vital back-up when needed.

The West Hill cliffs in Hastings remain a prime location for rope rescues, with firefighters regularly called to come to the aid of someone who has fallen and injured themselves.

Battle firefighter and rope rescue instructor Gary Norton said: “We had one incident where one guy was drunk and fell into a crevice.

“That’s quite a dangerous site for us.”

The team are due to be ‘trauma trained’ for when they have to deal with trapped casualties, who paramedics are unable to reach.

During one recent incident at a towerblock in St Leonards, an obese man had suffered a seizure.

In order to get him out of the building and get him the medical help he desperately needed, the man was taken out on to the balcony and lowered down nine floors.

A couple of months ago, the team were called to help rescue a distressed man from the top of a crane in Seaford.

And the rise in popularity of urban free climbing - where people illegally climb cranes and buildings without any safety equipment and then hang from them hundreds of metres above the ground - is a particular cause for concern for the team.

Firefighter Norton said: “All of a sudden these tower cranes are becoming an issue, so we do a lot of tower crane training.

“We have a bit of concern about these free climbers.”

All nine of Battle’s wholetime firefighters are rope rescue trained.

Because the training is so time consuming - with one day a week set aside for in-house rope rescue training and regular exercises at outside venues - the Rope Rescue Unit could not be manned by retained personnel.

Unfortunately Battle’s status as a full time fire station is at risk, thanks to controversial proposals from East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, meaning the Rope Rescue Unit could also be in jeopardy if the station is downgraded to retained status.

Across Battle and Bexhill, up to 20 firefighters are trained in rope rescue to varying levels, but often personnel have to come in on their days off to help crew the unit.

Firefighter Norton explains: “You have to have a certain amount of instructors and a certain amount of qualified operatives in order to carry out the rescue.

“It’s a safe system of work and novice operators can do certain jobs unsupervised.

“That’s why we need to go out with quite a few people.”

He added: “It’s the sort of thing you cannot let the training slip at all. It’s all training for that one-off event.”

One of these ‘one-off events’ which the unit prepares for is the potential for a major rescue from the Brightling mines, 200 metres underground.

Firefighter Norton said: “A lot of the miners know this safe haven and they would obviously try and make their way there. Once there, we have got means of coming down this vent and performing the rescue.

“We have actually bought lines specifically for that event because it’s a long way down.

“If anything happened, that would be a major, major rescue for us.

“That could be a major catastrophe - and we would be the first there.”

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