West Sussex Technical Rescue Unit

Most of us take it for granted that if there is a major incident in East Grinstead the fire service will come to our rescue. But did you know that West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service has a dedicated team who can handle anything from a cat stuck up a tree to international disasters.

Arriving at the fire station I am greeted by 52-year-old crew manager Neil Graham, who has been on the team since it was launched in 2006.

The TRU has just 12 members (11 men and one woman) who have more than 80 years of experience between them.

It is the only team in the country that are trained to carry out urban search and rescues (USAR), rope rescues, water rescues, animal rescues and overseas international search and rescue missions.

Training in an enclosed space
Part of the reason for the unit being at Horley Fire Station, right on the Sussex/Surrey border, is because Gatwick is just yards away, meaning the team can respond rapidly to any major incident at the airport.

As well as having access to a warehouse full of the latest rescue kit the team has had intense training, which has to be regularly refreshed so members are always at the top of their game.

Most of the team are older firefighters who were looking for a new challenge.

Neil, who spent six years in the fire service before joining the team, said: “You need to be a fully qualified firefighter to join, which takes about four years.

“Once you are on the team it take another two years and a lot of courses.

“New people spend one week on rope rescue, one on water rescue, one on animal rescue and three on USAR.”

The team travel wherever they are needed in Sussex and further afield if their expertise is required.

In ten years the team have joined six international missions, helping after earthquakes in Nepal, Haiti, Indonesia and New Zealand, a tsunami in Japan and a flood in Bosnia.

The team live across the county so are able to spring into action at a moment’s notice as four people are always available 24 hours a day.

One team member who is closest to the base is crew manager Adrien Kirkpatrick, who lives in Sandhill Lane, Crawley Down.

The 43-year-old has been on the team for three years and loves that the job involves doing something different every day.

He said: “We are the ones that specialise in everything that isn’t ordinary.

“It is great to be part of such a small team.”

When I walk around the station I spy a life-size model of a horse that Neil says has been fondly named Brian by the team so they can practice large animal rescues.

And, when asked, all of the team admit to carrying out cat rescues.

Neil said: “We see it as training. It is better us rescuing them than an owner trying.

“We had an owner last year who got stuck up a tree after trying to get their cat down. It is a chance to practice rope rescue.

“If it wasn’t us it would be a fire engine which would be taking resources away if there was a fire. Of course, if there was a big emergency the cat would stay up the tree.”

Neil also spoke about some of the more memorable incidents that the team have been called to.

“We have been on Real Rescues (a BBC TV programme) several times,” he said.

“Our best rope rescue was a paraglider stuck 60 metres up a tree in Devil’s Dyke near Brighton.

“We had to attach ropes to neighbouring trees and were throwing things to him as he was fully conscious.

“In the end we were able to attach him to our ropes and get him free.”

The team were also called in when a man got stuck on top of a lift after breaking into the Town Hall in Crawley and more recently came to the rescue of a man who got his leg trapped in a lift shaft in a building in Crawley town centre.

The team also spent three weeks helping with the aftermath of the Shoreham air crash last August when 11 people were killed.

Thankfully such large scale tragedies are few and far between and animal rescues are a lot more common around East Grinstead.

In recent months a horse has been rescued from a swimming pool and over the winter ducks were helped to escape from a frozen Moat Pond.

Rescuing a horse can be a complex operation
Neil said: “It is our least important role but the thing we spend most of our time on.

“It doesn’t always go how you want as Matt (one of the team) was chased by a pig and another member by a bull that we were trying to rescue from a river.”

If you need help from the team you can also be assured that you will be in safe hands when they get to you as all have medical training.

Neil said: “We are trained as first-on-scene responders so we are able to stabilise fairly serious conditions.

“We are looking to work with the ambulance service to be fully trained as first responders.”

When the team are called to a disaster situation overseas they have just a two-hour turnaround to get ready.

They have a specialist kit each to take with them so they are able to hit the ground running.

“We need to be completely independent with rations for two days as you might get separated from other kit and supplies,” Neil said.

“This happened in Haiti and we were completely away from our kit for several days.

“When we go away we literally have to drop everything, but everyone is really supportive.”

The team are trained in water rescues
Because they are government funded they usually rely on commercial flights. Neil said: “When we went to Indonesia there was no plane available to get us there. So the RAF took us, which was an experience.”

In between call-outs the team also go all over the world to work with other rescue teams to make sure they are using the latest techniques while checking that kits are in good working order.

Neil added: “We have just come back from Germany and a few years ago we went to Carolina in the US which hosts a yearly water specialist training event because they get widespread flooding regularly.”

While it sounds an extremely exciting job, travelling the world to perform heroic rescue missions, Neil said there is one downside – the amount of time they have to spend checking their kit is in working order.