United Response: Specially Trained Forces With Dedicated Equipment

In June 2014 expert firefighters from France, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands boarded the Princess Seaways owned by DFDS Seaways where they were confronted with a fire on one of the cruise ferry’s car decks. Not to worry though, it was merely a large scale exercise held by MIRG-EU project which formed the culmination of years of hard work.

MIRG-EU stands for Maritime Incident Response Groups Europe, a project that finds its inception in the province of Zeeland in the South West of the Netherlands. Jeroen Zonnevijlle, project leader at Safety Region Zeeland, talks about the project’s history. “Looking at the Zeeland region, we can see many risk factors”, says Zonnevijlle. “We have a large industry area with, for instance, fertilizer plants and a nuclear power station, and we are responsible for several waters such as the Scheldt. It is the entrance to Zeeland Seaports, as well as the international ports of Beveren, Ghent and Antwerp, with whom we have close ties. The scale of this region makes us the fourth largest port area in the world. You can understand how important response to maritime incidents is to us. MIRG is part of a set of goals instated by the Zeeland Safety Region. As safety region crisis management, as well as bringing together the fire department, regional medical care and the management of larger incidents are daily topics. With all activities aimed at increasing the safety of the people in the province of Zeeland.”

Expertise required

“We realised,” Zonnevijlle continues, “that although we can of course take action during maritime incidents, our actions could be improved with the correct expertise. Fire fighting¬†on land cannot be compared to fire fighting on board of a vessel. When you look at any small village in the Netherlands, a cruise vessel can often offer more amenities. On a cruise ship or a chemical tanker the dynamics of fire fighting are different. A vessel is compact and not always easy to navigate. Fast and effective response should make evacuation less necessary and also means open shipping lanes and less harm to the environment.” Of the firefighters within the safety region 36 have been trained to become experts who can handle specialised equipment necessary for onboard fire fighting.

International support

Zonnevijlle goes on to explain that with the MIRG initiative in place for Zeeland, the quest was on to find other safety regions that could offer their expertise. “The Kent Fire and Rescue Service in the United Kingdom could offer us this, they already had MIRGs at the time and together with the Belgian Fire and Rescue Services from Antwerp, Beveren and Ghent, the Pas de Calais fire and rescue service in France, the Federal Centre of Expertise for Civil Security and the Province of Zeeland, MIRG-EU was finally formed. The project is subsidised by the Interreg IVa 2 Seas Programme for which we are very grateful, without their funding and support none of this would have been possible. Plus, they are also enthusiastic about the project and its maritime character”, comments Zonnevijlle.

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Speak the same language

“As MIRG-EU we needed to establish a standard operations policy manual”, says Zonnevijlle. “To be able to work together we need to be sure we all speak the same language, figuratively as well as literally. One specific point in the manual is which nautical terms we use to explain certain facts within an incident. Moreover the manual makes it possible for us to readily assist our international counterparts, but also that we can take over if necessary. For instance, if the English MIRG has been working on a fire for several hours and they are exhausted, we can easily relieve them. The manual was officially signed by all our partners September last. Funnily enough, many talks were held, but the whole process of completing the manual was pretty straight forward. Some things can just be that simple, I think. With the manual in place, it means we all deal with incidents using the same methods, using interchangeable materials and we all have the same training and use the¬†same terminology. Education, training and exercise will always be paramount. It needs to be embedded in our team.”

The materials and equipment play a vital role in the MIRG-EU project, from survival suits, which are necessary when being hoisted down from a helicopter on board a vessel, to equipment necessary to contain and maintain fires.

One of the parties that Safety Region Zeeland collaborates with is leading Dutch towage and salvage company Multraship. Leendert Muller, managing director of the company, states: “Though we are not directly involved in the MIRG-EU project, we have entered into an agreement with Safety Region Zeeland to keep two tugs with fire-fighting capability on standby for them in the river Scheldt. As professional salvers, we respond to all casualties including fire cases. In such cases we can now jointly respond and make use of each others expertise. This will only further improve safety in our region.” Zonnevijlle is pleased with this collaboration. “Salvage companies and fire fighters have their own expertise. By combining them we strengthen each other and can both do a better job.”

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Full scale exercise

In June 2014 the MIRG-EU held their, before mentioned, large scale exercise on the Princess Seaways. Whilst speaking to Zonnevijlle you really feel a sense of pride. He explains: “The whole experience was just really positive. We wanted to monitor several factors, such as one MIRG relieving the other, which went very well, and we also wanted to see if our ‘contain and maintain’ method works. This method entails the containment of the fire and maintaining the vessel so it can be brought back alongside for further treatment or maintaining the vessel as long as possible to allow evacuation if necessary. The feedback we received afterwards has been extremely positive. For us, it was a proud moment.”

What does the future hold for MIRG-EU? Zonnevijlle: “My hope is that the project will be a start-up for more international cooperation and sharing our expertise with other Fire en Rescue Services throughout Europe. We are always looking for more interested parties. The shipping industry is still the safest way of transporting goods. Should anything happen within our waters, there are now various international, expert teams readily available to respond.”

Rebecca McFedries