West Kent firefighters went back to school recently, for a training exercise to test the emergency services’ response to a fire at Valence School in Westerham.
Three fire engines and around 14 firefighters were involved in the drill, which simulated a fire in the Cedars building, a two-storey educational facility at the school for children and young people aged 4-19 who have physical disabilities and complex medical needs.
The scenario began when the automatic fire alarms sounded; a smoke machine was used to provide realism. Staff and students were asked to leave through the nearest fire exit to a predetermined assembly point and to await the arrival of Kent Fire and Rescue Service (KFRS). During the roll call it became apparent that 17 people had not been accounted for.
A KFRS breathing apparatus (BA) team went into the smoke-filled building, and using a hose reel jet they put out the ‘simulated’ fire on the ground floor. Several ‘casualties’ were found and rescued from the ground floor but a further 11 staff and students remained trapped in a second-floor classroom. Their cries for help could be heard but their exit route was blocked by heavy-smoke logging in the hallway.
Radios were used to convey messages between the various KFRS teams and a second team of firefighters pitched a ladder to the window to reassure the stricken group that the fire was out but that a big, noisy fan was being used to clear the smoke. Once cleared firefighters took the remaining casualties to safety.
Sevenoaks Crew Manager, James Heath, organiser of the drill said: “We are very grateful to Valence School for allowing us to train in a real-life environment. It helps us understand the challenges we may face in a school environment, where many of the students are in wheelchairs or have a range of additional needs. It provides us with invaluable experience and helps ensure we are fully prepared should the worst happen.”
Firefighters set up an on-site command and control point with an appointed representative from the school, testing out communication plans. They searched for and rescued 17 ‘casualties’ in the complex building structure and were also able to test the water supplies using both an on-site hydrant and pump water from a lake within the school grounds.
James added: “It was important to explain to the students that while we may look a scary in our fire gear and sound a bit like Darth Vader in our breathing apparatus, not to be alarmed, this is what we wear if we come into a real fire to help keep us and them safe.
“We also let the students experience just how limited visibility can be due to the smoke, they were quite shocked that they couldn’t see through it.”
One of the students who took part said: “I was trapped in a fire before and it was really scary. Since then, just hearing the fire alarms going off really frightens me. But talking to the firefighters and being involved in the training was reassuring and I felt very calm.”
Staff and students trapped in the classroom acted out what they would do if it had been a real-life fire, while they waited for firefighters to rescue them, such as:
Keeping the door shut and putting something along the bottom to stop smoke getting in the room
Opening the windows to shout fire! fire! This also let the smoke out and allowed the fresh air in
Turning on the lights in the room, so you can see better and are much easier to see from outside
Students used the lights and hooters on their wheelchairs so they could be seen and heard, they also wrote the words help on paper and stuck them at the windows of the classroom.
Paul Kniveton, Head of Social Care and Safeguarding at Valence School said: “We have 100 students with a range of complex medical needs and disabilities and over half of them board at the school. Their safety is paramount, if a building has to be evacuated, we have to ensure their needs are met and that they have the assistance required to get out safely.
“This has been a valuable experience, enabling us to test our procedures and ensure they are robust. Lessons learned will be evaluated and actioned.”