FIREFIGHTERS rushed to the old Grange Leisure Centre in Midhurst on Monday evening after fire broke out in the roof trapping eight people including a baby.
Crews from Midhurst, Petworth and Chichester were quickly on the scene.
And firefighters wearing breathing apparatus went into the smoke-logged building battling the pitch-black darkness and the intense heat as they edged their way towards the cries for help which were coming from somewhere above them in the dark.
But this was no ordinary fire.
It was a specially prepared scenario organised by Midhurst fire station manager Nigel Gamblen who was exercise director for the evening.
“This was a great opportunity for us to practice our search procedures,” Nigel explained.
“We used to do similar exercises at King Edward VII hospital, but that has not been available to us for some time and then we got the chance to use the Grange for a one -off exercise before it is pulled down.”
And so the Grange, now stripped of most of its interior, came back to life, one more time to host one more community activity.
Firefighters wives, children and girlfriends turned out to take on the role of casualties stranded in the dark and were left in the darkness in the Pearson Gallery and the Burdett Room up a dark flight of stairs in the eerily empty Grange.
Dave West, managing director of WL West and Sons, sawmills at Selham and a former firefighter himself was drafted in to take on the role of the ‘occupier’ at the Grange.
So when the alarm was raised and four fire engines, two from Midhurst and two from Petworth arrived, he rushed into the Grange car park to direct fire crews yelling “There are people inside, we don’t know how many.”
“We try to make these exercises as realistic as possible,” said Nigel, “so firefighters can practice their search procedures in as life-like a way as possible. So the casualties will be shouting they can’t find their way out in the darkness and they don’t know how many there are or where they are.
“Members of the public don’t realise how much time it takes to search a building thoroughly especially when you are dealing with smoke and intense heat,” said Nigel.
Fundamental to the safety of the firefighters going into the ‘burning’ building in their breathing apparatuses is the entry control point and the control officer.
And on Monday firefighters quickly set up their entry point with an ECO (entry control officer) wearing a distinctive tabard outside the building.
At the same time the breathing apparatus support unit arrived from Chichester with a crew ready to recharge cylinders.
“The entry control officer has the responsibility of keeping a tally of the firefighters going into the ‘risk’ and working out how much air they have and how much time they have to get out,” said Nigel. “They would normally have around 40 minutes but it depends how hot it is and how hard they are breathing if they have to go upstairs or are supporting casualties coming out.”
Safety for firefighters has come a long way since the 1960s when firefighters lost their lives after failing to find their way out of a burning building.
“Now the entry control officers are in constant radio communication with them as they conduct their searches and for added good measure, in case anything goes wrong inside the ‘risk’ they all carry ADSUs (automatic distress signal units) which tell colleagues outside if they fall and are unable to respond to calls and pinpoint where they are,” Nigel told the Observer.
After logging in with the ECO at the Grange on Monday firefighters entered the building in pairs, connected by lines to conduct either a left handed or a right handed search.
With one crew member feeling his way down the wall and the other attached and following on the line, the two also carry out foot sweeps in front of them testing the strength of the floor and the steps on stair cases.
Slowly they pushed deeper and deeper into the building and disappeared into the blackness as they colleagues let out their breathing lines.
Methodically they felt their way along the walls and through the doors towards the sound of casualties yelling and banging the floor to guide their rescuers.
“It’s a painstaking process and it’s important to get it right,” said Nigel, as he followed the progress of the firefighters throughout the exercise.
Eventually they re-emerged sounding like Darth Vader behind their masks and leading their casualties to safety. Job well done!