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USAR team celebrates hosting National Assurance Exercise at new training facility

USAR team celebrates hosting National Assurance Exercise at new training facility

Our Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Crew were delighted to show off their skills in planning, preparing and hosting a simulated complex rescue exercise, when they welcomed more than 150 operational staff to their new dedicated training site at Westcott.

The Aylesbury-based team were joined by Zone 2 USAR counterparts to provide the scenario and setting for an assurance assessment of Zone 1 crews.

Code named Exercise Banjo the 30-hour event was rolled out over two days. It involved a mid-air collision between two aircraft with the wreckage landing on a school.

Operational staff were supported by Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service colleagues, and emergency service partners, as the scenario built from initial incident response into a protracted multi-agency rescue and recovery scenario.

Planning and preparation:

However the planning and preparation for this complex exercise started well in advance. Realistic props such as burning cars, a plane fuselage, school equipment and more than 600 tonnes of rubble needed to be strategically placed, to facilitate the most realistic and challenging scenario for the teams being assessed.

Image of crashed plane fuselage in front of circular building.

USAR Watch Commander and Canine Handler, Alan Still, planned and led the scenario build at the Aylesbury Team’s training site at Westcott Venture Park (WVP). Alan said:

“It takes a fair bit of work behind the scenes to ensure we can deliver a scenario that maximises the realism and complexity for the crews who will be attending.

“Planning and preparation started in October 2022 and involved close collaboration between all of the Zone 2 USAR teams, the Hazardous Area Response Team (HART), Thames Valley Police, Disaster Victim Identification (DVI), Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Council Emergency Planning Officers, Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) and WVP, with Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service taking the lead role throughout.”

Alan was keen to thank those who supported the Exercise: “We wouldn’t be able to put on these sorts of events without the support and assistance of fire service colleagues, and the fabulous team at WVP which provides us with a base for disaster training. We also have to thank the local community who have responded to our social posts and requests for help with props such as desks and school-related paraphernalia, as well as rubble supplied by Bucks Recycling and smoke from Concept Engineering.”

Red plastic child's school chair tipped o its side amongst yellow plastic trays and cardboard to simulate a school classroom in disarray.

Aylesbury and USAR Station Commander, Kevin Mercer, said:

“This was an exercise to be proud of.  Those involved in the planning and preparation deserve recognition for delivering such a testing and realistic scenario, enabling those being assessed to operate in an environment as close to reality as is possible in an exercise situation.

“We are really fortunate to have such an experienced, creative and knowledgeable USAR crew here at Aylesbury, alongside a great facility in which we are able to host this sort of exercise.

“The success of Exercise Banjo is a testament to the experience that those planning the event have been able to draw upon, as well as the great relationship that have built between the crew and WVP since we ran our first exercise there in 2020.”

“We look forward to continuing the delivery of quality training and exercising scenarios, both for our own staff and those from other services, as we prepare to be able to deliver the best emergency response to the community whenever they need us.”

The national USAR teams are trained to be ready to respond in the event of a serious incident which require an enhanced capability outside the normal remit of the fire and rescue services.

Assurance and Assessment:

USAR forms part of the Government’s New Dimension programme, introduced following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. It seeks to enhance the capability of the fire and rescue service to respond to a range of major emergencies.

These cross-service training exercises are usually held every three years and offer a key opportunity for the specially trained technicians to practice a coordinated, efficient response.

The assessors from the National Resilience Assurance Team monitored how the Zone 1 teams interacted and worked together during the exercise, which ran from Wednesday 8 March to Thursday 9 March 2023.

USAR Zone 1 fire and rescue services:

  • Lancashire
  • Lincolnshire
  • Merseyside
  • Tyne and Wear
  • West Yorkshire

They also assessed how the Zone 2 Teams came together to plan, host and run the exercise.

USAR Zone 2 fire and rescue services:

  • Buckinghamshire
  • Essex
  • Leicestershire
  • Norfolk
  • West Midlands

Their findings will be reported back to the National Fire Chiefs’ Council, who will issue their reports later this year.

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