As I stared out through the broken windscreen of the car, the medic asked me to breathe in deeply. Trapped behind the wheel, and with possible spinal injuries, I couldn’t move. I heard the chilling cracks as the ultra-powerful ‘jaws of life’ tool cut through the vehicle’s pillars, one after another, until daylight flooded in as the roof came off.
A long board was slid in behind me, and as the seatback was lowered, my 16-stone frame was hauled on as if it weighed nothing. Shifted to the horizontal, I was lifted out and taken to the waiting ambulance.
I don’t remember the crash... because there wasn’t one. It was all fake, and I was taking part in one of most unusual rescue events ever: the 2008 World Extrication Challenge.
Staged at the Cardiff International Arena (CIA) – a venue more used to pop concerts – it’s an annual championship for fire and rescue crews. The goal is simple: to find the best squad on the planet at getting injured people out of wrecked cars. And as with the Olympics, it’s been years in the planning. The organiser, South Wales Fire and Rescue Service, even had to bid against rivals for the right to run it.
Competitors have come from all corners of the world. There are several ‘county’ teams from the UK, plus representatives of 17 countries, including South Africa, Australia, America, Serbia and Ghana in West Africa.
The Challenge lasts three days, and each team has to complete three types of rescue: Rapid, Standard and Complex. Only one rescue is performed per day, against the clock for 10, 20 or 30 minutes respectively. The rest of the time is spent preparing the equipment – to make things fair, everyone competes with the same kit, from the fire engine downwards – or watching other teams in action.
The CIA’s main hall floor is the venue, with crowds of supporters and colleagues cheering the teams on from behind metal safety barriers.
Yet while the rescues might be faked, to the competitors it’s deadly serious. Particularly for the Complex rescue scenario, where two cars are wedged together at unnatural angles to make things as tricky as possible for the teams. Two ‘casualties’ are trapped inside, and the clock starts when the fire engine rolls to a stop
with its blue lights on.
From that moment, the drama is as real as a genuine car crash. The incident commander takes charge, ordering an initial assessment of the site to find the trapped people and identify any potential risks. Then it’s straight to work, perhaps sawing out the windscreen, cutting the roof away or popping a door open to improve access.
A team may or may not finish an incident in the time allowed, but when the whistle blows it has to move away. Within seconds a forklift truck appears to remove the wrecks, and marshals with brooms sweep up any debris.
Next, two more cars – which have been supplied by the wheel clamping unit from the DVLA, down the road in Swansea – are balanced precariously together for the next team to showcase its skills.
Bill Denny is chief assessor and in charge of the nine others who’ve come from all over the world to pass judgment. He has 30 years’ experience in the fire service – 15 of them as an instructor dealing with car crashes. And he says that everything revolves around rules based on competency.
“What we’re looking for is a team that can do simultaneous physical and medical activity,” explained Bill. “We want an officer in charge to take control of health and safety issues, and are looking for people using the tools efficiently, with knowledge of dealing with the cars’ safety systems.
It has to be a safe rescue, centred around the casualty.” The first extrication challenges were held in the US more than 20 years ago, but it’s not just about getting marks for pulling occupants clear. These events are also a forum for firefighters to share and improve the tricks of their trade with colleagues worldwide.
The Cardiff event was staged under the auspices of the World Rescue Organisation (see panel on Page 61), and the man in charge was Steve Martin, area manager for operations at South Wales Fire and Rescue Service. He said: “The difference between a good rescue team and the very best is attention to detail and being open to learning new ideas and skills.”
A fine example came from the South African team. Its manager, Neville van Rensburg, revealed: “At an event a few years ago, we saw some teams doing a ‘B-post rip’ – cutting away a car’s B-pillar to double the space the rescuers have to get a casualty out.
“It wasn’t part of our training in South Africa, but we watched and learned. Days after we got back, one of the team members was at an accident where it was possible to implement it.”
Neville explained that he would be taking the Complex set-up concept back home and using it in future. “Our rescue services are very well trained, but we have a high rate of vehicle accidents,” he added. “We try to keep our training to the same standard as the rest of the world, yet you can get tunnel vision.
“Coming to an event like this is not about winning, it’s taking part. When the guys get home they set up a workshop to spread new information to colleagues.” The defending World and European Champion is the UK’s Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service. Team manager Steve Barrow believes that extrication events promote best practice.
He said: “We were at an event last year in Barcelona and saw the team from New Zealand using a small rubber ball as part of a rescue. We didn’t know why, but then we saw the crew wedge it under a car door handle to keep it up and open – so when using the ‘jaws of life’, you’re not pulling against the door locks as well, which are often the strongest part.”
Steve and his team were so impressed, they took the idea to Hampshire’s 1,500 firefighters – and now all the county’s appliances use the rubber balls. “It was so clever,” he told us. “A 30p ball supplementing a £20,000 tool. And we got it from New Zealand firemen who are retained [part-timers], more used to shearing sheep!”
OUT OF AFRICA
One of the star attractions at the 2008 World Extrication Challenge was undoubtedly the Ghanaian team. It was its first time competing, but the crew had come to Wales mob-handed, with the chairman of the country’s Fire Service Council, plus the chief fire officer and his two deputies, all in the crowd for support.
Team leader Michael Katako told us that the whole team was enjoying the experience. “Us being here is a very big story back in Ghana. When we are doing our rescues, we’ve had many people coming to watch us to give us great backing,” he said.
Despite Michael’s claim that the Ghanaian team was there to win, in reality, the event is a chance to learn new techniques that will save lives back home. “Ours is a country with a huge number of car crashes, caused by poor road conditions, older vehicles and drivers going too fast,” Michael explained.
AND THE WINNER IS...
Steve Barrow, manager of the current defending champion from Hampshire, reckons the UK rescue teams are some of the best in the world. He told us: “I think it’s in part because the crews have been together for a good few years; they work together on the job, do station-based training and are pals.
“The Australians and Germans are also up there. But there’s not much between any of the Brits.” However, when the assessors’ marks were totted up, Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service was top of the pile once again. After collecting the trophy, Steve revealed: “We’re thrilled to win back-to-back. That’s never been done before, and it’s a testament to the guys involved, because we didn’t have the best preparation.” He said Hants would defend its title in Chicago, US, next year – albeit not with the same team. “We will have some of the current guys and some new ones. It’s crucial we increase the skills base of more people.”
In second place came Royal Berkshire, followed by Northern Ireland – which showed that Steve was right: the Brits really are the best in the world.
What is the World Rescue Organisation?
It sounds like something from Thunderbirds, but the World Rescue Organisation isn’t a group of puppets based on a tropical island. It’s a UK charity that provides training and resources for crash rescue services worldwide, aiming to establish global best practice.
Yet if no two car crashes are the same, how can it prepare rescuers? Steve Martin, the Cardiff event boss and a man with a Masters degree in Vehicle Entrapment Training, explained: “Historically, the starting point for learning rescue skills was that every accident was different.
“But through events such as the World Extrication Challenge, things have changed. There are similarities – there will always be casualties, as well as certain risks – so you train people around these.”
Current teaching methods are based around a starting scenario of a car on its wheels and a driver trapped in his seat. Then, everything is built from that – for example, a vehicle in water, or on its side or roof, multiple casualties and so on.
But the World Extrication Challenge isn’t only about better educating rescue workers. It also aims to inform the public. Other events under the World Rescue Wales banner include a conference on ‘Dealing with Disasters’ and a community safety fun day for schools. Thousands of children also attended the CIA for short periods to watch the rescues. The organisers say if even one life is saved, it’s worth doing.