St Neots crews train hard in soft play centre

02 February 2009

Firefighters navigate their way around the soft play equipment.

WHERE better for fully grown firefighters to train than a soft play area meant for children less than twice their size?

It may sound unconventional, but retained firefighters from St Neots did exactly that during their drill night on Wednesday, at the Eat 'n' Bowl in Huntingdon Street, St Neots.

With all the lights turned off, except the dim glow of UV lighting, the soft play area in the building quickly transformed into one of the most complicated and claustrophobic rescue attempts the crews have ever had to deal with.

Eight check points were hidden around the three-storey structure and crews had to locate them as quickly as possible. To get to each check point, crews had to navigate carefully, check air levels, memorise the route and negotiate their way through narrow openings.

Gary Mitchley, Station Manager for St Neots said: "When firefighters enter a burning building to rescue a casualty, it's not just the flames they have to deal with.

"Visibility is bad due to smoke logging and because the property is unknown, firefighters have to navigate tight staircases, items blocking their way and trip hazards using only their hands to guide them. While doing all this they must also mentally map the layout of the home in their minds in order to bring the casualty out as quickly as possible.

"The Eat 'n' Bowl soft play area is essentially a three-storey maze with a whole range of obstacles and dead ends. It's an unconventional location for a training exercise, but it's far more difficult to navigate in the dark than any house I've been in during my 25 year career with the fire service."

The idea for the training exercise was discovered after retained firefighter David Thorpe took his children to the soft play area earlier this year. While watching his daughter Flora struggle to find her way in the light, he thought it would be an ideal set-up to test firefighters.

He said: "It suddenly struck me how tricky it would be for fully grown firefighters with breathing cylinders strapped to their backs to navigate around the structure.

"With support and welcoming from the staff at Eat 'n' Bowl, we quickly set up the training exercise to see just how difficult it would be."

Despite the difficulty involved in the exercise, the firefighters proved that they could carry out a rescue successfully in a real-life situation.

Graham Stagg, Chief Fire Officer for Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service said: "We actively encourage our firefighters to think innovatively when it comes to emergency training and this is a classic example of this being put into practice.

"Members of the public need to know that our firefighters are capable of rescuing a casualty, not matter how complicated the layout of the building."