Firefighters board Russian ship in Exercise Poseidon

Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service's first training exercise on board a ship has been hailed a success.

Crews from around the county were called to Wisbech Port on Wednesday evening (Oct 19) for a simulated fire in the engine room of a 3,000 tonne Russian ship, with casualties and persons overboard.

The Incident Command Unit from Huntingdon attended along with crews from Wisbech and Huntingdon. Crews from Dogsthorpe with specialist in-water training also attended, together with two crews from Outwell and West Walton in Norfolk.

Twenty-five firefighters had to locate and gain access to the ship’s engine room where the fire was located and carry out a search and rescue of all on-board casualties and extinguish all fires.

Dogsthorpe firefighters wearing drysuits used an inflatable boat to locate and rescue three casualties in the water, working alongside two crews from Fenland District Council’s Harbour Authority, who also had three members of staff shoreside, including Harbour Master Jamie Hemming and a representative from Fenland District Council’s Health and Safety Department.

Exercise Poseidon, as it was referred to throughout the exercise, saw dummies thrown into the water some distance from the ship, which was moored at the harbour in Nene Parade, close to the town centre.

Hazards faced by the crews included narrow passageways, trip hazards with ropes and a potential to fall in the water.

On-board operations took place in dark, narrow passageways with one room filled with smoke. Firefighters searching for bodies in the River Nene worked in night-time conditions.

Although Wisbech firefighters have attended a fire on board a ship before, it was over the border in Norfolk.

Wednesday night’s Exercise Poseidon, however, was Cambridgeshire’s first in-county training exercise on board a ship.

Watch Commander Phil Pilbeam, from Wisbech Station, spent eight weeks planning the event with Crew Commander Tim Carr.

“I’m really pleased with how things went. It all went really smoothly.”

He said the exercise provided a unique opportunity for firefighters to train on board a ship.

"Firefighters in Cambridgeshire are well trained and knowledgeable in house fires, factory fires and Road Traffic Collisions etc. However, a ship fire is unique. It's in a confined space, it's made of metal and it's a lot hotter because it's a metal container. 

"Ships have an unfamiliar layout to crews. They can be very complex in their layout and this was a unique opportunity for all the crews to attend and to put these different skills into practice."

WC Pilbeam said the exercise had raised some good learning points.

“The inflatable boat from Dogsthorpe was not powerful enough for a tidal area. It was fine going with the tide but not against it. It had to be towed by the two boats from the Harbour Authority.

“Also, the crew set up lots of hose reels to help us out but we couldn’t use them because the couplings didn’t fit ours so we will be talking to the Harbour Master and our Operational Support Group to bring in some specialist hose reels for the harbour.”

He said communication with the nine-strong Russian crew on board the ship, had proved challenging.

“There were definitely language barriers that were an issue. We would ask what we wanted to get across and they would try and put across what they wanted. There were lots of hand signals and lots of pointing and gesturing.”

Despite some of the difficulties faced, he said the whole exercise, from time of call-out to when the crews returned to their stations, took three hours, which was what he had expected.

Harbour Master Jamie Hemming, of Fenland District Council, said with about forty cargo ships arriving at Wisbech Port each year there was a ‘real chance’ of a fire on board a ship so training exercises like this were really helpful.

“There’s a real chance of fire on board a ship. We are the only Port in Cambridgeshire so for Wisbech it is a serious scenario so from that point of view it was good to see the guys working on something a little bit out of their comfort zone.

“The joint exercise went extremely well and it was reassuring for us as a Harbour Authority to see the whole thing co-ordinated in such a professional and timely manner. It will stand us all in good stead should a similar real incident occur.”

Jamie said the Harbour Authority was keen to see more training exercises on board ships in the future.

“I would like to see another training exercise on board a ship at least once or twice a year as it’s a very proactive approach.”

The majority of boats coming into Wisbech arrive from the Baltics carrying timber and leave with scrap metal for Spain.