Firefighters 'better equipped' for flooding disasters a decade after deadly deluge

Firefighters rescue a pensioner in Ecclesfield during the great flood of 2007
Firefighters rescue a pensioner in Ecclesfield during the great flood of 2007
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Firefighters in South Yorkshire insist they are better equipped to deal with flooding disasters a decade on from the worst deluge to hit the area in living memory.

Fire crews from across the country were drafted in to help tackle the great flood of 2007, with efforts concentrated on preventing the Ulley Reservoir in Rotherham breaching its banks and submerging hundreds of homes.

South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue staff practise their water rescue skills (SYFR)

South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue staff practise their water rescue skills (SYFR)

Simon Dunker, South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue's (SYFR) group manager for civil protection and collaboration, was one of the heroes on duty that week as the brigade was stretched to its limit.

He said it was one of the toughest times in his 18 years with the brigade, but he is proud of how crews in South Yorkshire and their counterparts from around the UK coped with the pressure.

"It was all hands to the deck. We received an unprecedented number of calls, but we got instructors out of training schools to help and people from other departments chipping in too," he said.

"Normally we're quite good at giving our crews the welfare and rest and relaxation they need but because of the amount of calls we got that wasn't as easy to put in place. People came in off their holidays and rest days to support the crews that were meant to be on duty.

"One of the hardest things was how long it took to get to and from jobs. There was such a wide area of flooding that we often had to make massive detours.

"The teamwork that went off was brilliant. From doing 15-hour shifts pumping out water to five hours digging sand bags, everybody got on with it.

"The local community were amazing too, making us sandwiches and cups of tea at what was such a difficult time for them."

At the time of the flood, Mr Dunker says the fire service had just one water rescue unit with seven members based at Aston Park fire station, with one boat available and two inflatable walkways which could be used to rescue people from still water.

Today, he explains, there are two fully-trained water rescue teams and many more 'first responders' who are trained to attend emergencies in still water up to a certain depth.

The fire service now has two motor boats and a rescue sled, which can be used to retrieve people from the water, along with a high volume pump capable of moving 8,000 litres of water a minute - equivalent to the amount used in 100 baths.

"I do genuinely think that operationally, equipment-wise and with training-wise, we're in a far better place than we were 10 years ago," said Mr Dunker.

"Members of the public are also more aware they need to remain vigilant to the flood risk and pay attention to any warnings the Environment Agency puts out."

Firefighters were not the only emergency services putting in a monumental effort to tackle what was described then as the biggest civil emergency to hit the area in over 50 years.

Police and paramedics also faced huge pressure, and RAF helicopters were scrambled to rescue stranded office workers.

Hospital staff rose to the challenge too, working mammoth shifts and coming in on their days off to cover for colleagues who were unable to get to work during the crisis.

Cathy Woods was a ward sister at Sheffield's Northern General Hospital at the time.

She told how there were nurses who had worked a 12-hour day shift and stayed on to cover for night-shift workers who couldn't make it in.

The 57-year-old, of Dronfield, who had herself worked an eight-hour day shift, said she and other colleagues had to persuade them to reluctantly grab just a couple of hours' sleep while they helped out.

"Staff were taking it in turns to have a short sleep on the dressing trolleys before returning to work," said Ms Woods, who did not leave until 11am the next morning, when the roads finally began to clear.

"It was backs to the wall but the atmosphere was quite good. There was a bit of a Blitz spirit."

There was no shortage of heroes among members of the public, either.

Christopher Brennan and Darren Fogg were both rewarded for their efforts to save 68-year-old Peter Harding, which sadly proved in vain.

They teamed up to pull him from the water after he was swept away in the torrents along Newhall Road, Attercliffe, and they tried to resuscitate him, but he died a short time later after a heart attack.

Michelle McAssey told how she and her daughter Courtney, then aged eight, had helped to rescue an 86-year-old woman who fell into the water in Herries Road, Hillsborough.

"We helped her to dry land and she was in tears. She said she was trying to get to her home in Longley, and she'd already walked from the city centre," said Ms McAssey, of Southey Green.

"I wrapped her in a blanket and took her home and when we got there the phone rang and Courtney answered. It was the woman's daughter, and she was so relieved to know her mum was safe."