Page last updated at 03:21 GMT, Saturday, 29 November 2008

Hovercraft and dogs for flood rescues

By Sarah Portlock
BBC News, West Midlands

Hovercraft (Pic: Hovercraft Search and Rescue
Hovercraft would have stopped volunteers wading through water

When heavy rain began to fall on Friday, 20 July, 2007, nobody could quite believe the effect it would have.

In some parts of Herefordshire and Worcestershire an inch of rain fell in one hour.

By early afternoon, children were being rescued from a school in Worcester, trains were cancelled and roads were shut.

And volunteers from the Mercia Inshore Rescue team were about to spend the next three days wading through contaminated water, carrying out up to 70 rescues.

As a result of last year's experience, the rescuers have come together to launch a new organisation - the Inland Flood Rescue Association (IFRA).

As well as having a more co-ordinated approach rescuers will be able to call on hovercraft, water bikes, amphibious vehicles and dog teams to help out.

We were wading around in contaminated conditions in areas that hovercraft would have been able to go into
Dave Walker, Mercia Rescue

Mercia team manager Dave Walker said having the extra teams and equipment on standby would be an enormous help.

"We have not experienced anything as bad as that before.

"The speed which which it happened was incredible. The computer simulations were telling us what was going on and no-one quite believed it."

It all proved to be a very steep learning curve.

"There were teams of volunteers all over the country waiting to be called upon to help but there was no system in place to get them involved," he said.

Should it happen in Worcestershire again, hovercrafts from UK Hovercraft based in Burnham in Somerset or Llandudno in Wales, could be on the scene within 90 minutes.

Newfoundland dog (Pic BBC/Tracy Morgan Animal Photogprahy
Newfoundland dogs are trained to help with water rescues

Smaller craft capable of carrying four people, are ideal for flood work.

"Hovercrafts can travel over any surface but a lot of experience is needed to pilot one," he said.

"They tend to waltz, rather than go in a straight line.

"If we'd had them last year it would have been a tremendous help. We were wading around in contaminated conditions in areas that they would have been able to go into."

Bill Allen, of Hovercraft Search and Rescue, said: "They can go over every terrain, whether its road, water, ice or snow."

An Italian team brought one over to help in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, during the floods last year, when there were teams around the country which could have helped.

Water bikes are another form of rescue.

Flooded Upton pictured from the air
The floods were some of the worst in living memory

"They have always been used offshore but now we are able to use them inland," Mr Walker said.

"We can even use them to tow rescue sledges behind them.

"Like the hovercraft, we could have used them last year instead of having to wade into difficult places through the water."

Teams based in Birmingham and Perranporth, Cornwall, provide training and volunteers to help with rescues.

Amphibious vehicles, such as Land Rovers, are most important as most modern vehicles have too much electrics for them to be able to go in the water safely.

And search dogs, such as a team of Newfoundlands, based in Cardiff, are also joining in with the rescue efforts.

Newfoundland dogs are especially fond of water.

"The problem we had last year, again, is that the dogs were not available. We did not know where to get them from quickly.

"Now it is all a matter of pulling together," Mr Walker said.

The IFRA is being launched at Upton Marina, Worcestershire, on Saturday.

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