UK firefighter and International Search and rescue expert Matt Keogh introduces the WASP, the Warning Alarm for Stability Protection and modern day solution to a 200 year old problem of protecting firefighters from the dangers of scene stability.
It is almost thirty years ago to the day that I donned my first PPE Fire Kit.
Personal Protective Equipment or PPE is designed to protect firefighters from the risk of injury at work.
As we all know, firefighters face numerous risks to health and safety and for those recruits joining the service today high quality PPE is taken for granted, and quite rightly so.
So imagine my surprise back in 1987 when I received my PPE – a woolly green suit, string vest, pair of leather boots, gloves borrowed from a Sheffield furnace and topped off with a helmet more akin with the Star Wars set.
For three years I battled on along with my fellow rookies doing our best to survive a sergeant who drove his watch to the edge and beyond on every drill session.
I recall a drill that involved aviation fuel being poured down a staircase into a fire bunker as crews battled to contain a raging basement fire protected only by those woolly suits.
Having completed my training I joined Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) and looked forward to finally receiving my professional PPE.
My anticipation was to be short lived as I was handed a pair of rubber boots, plastic wet-legs, cork helmet, and cows’ hooves gloves!
Fortunately things have finally moved on considerably.
This morning, almost 30 years later, I placed my state-of-the-art fire kit consisting of helmet, boots, flash hood and seven pairs of gloves on my personal rack. A clear indication that lessons have been learned.
Just as our PPE has evolved over the past 30 years, so too has the firefighting equipment and perhaps even more importantly the techniques and procedures we employ.
We now use lances that penetrate fire compartments allowing media to be applied without even entering the risk area; we deploy positive pressure fans which allow pre and post firefighting options that increase survivability rates for people trapped in buildings; and breathing apparatus with telemetry which allows uninterrupted communications between entry control officers and crews.
Fire trucks are now equipped with thermal imaging capabilities while body worn cameras monitor attacks on firefighters and drones provide an aerial assessment of the fire ground from a safe distance and relay information on the size, its scale and fire spread access areas.
The array of equipment, new technology and improved procedures have all combined to reduce the risk to firefighters on and off the fire ground significantly.
Yet, despite these advances in technology when it comes to the issue of stability – maybe an unstable wall, a vehicle or rubble pile – our profession still relies on a piece of kit that our predecessors have been using since the early 1800s.
The whistle. The humble whistle.
It seems incredible in this modern technological age that we still rely on a firefighter armed only with a whistle and their eyes to decide on whether a structure, vehicle or shoring is moving and therefore potential unsafe.
I remember being detailed to provide protection against a potential wall collapse as my gaffer shouted: “Keogh! Stand there and if that wall moves blow your whistle!”
“But I haven’t got a whistle, Guv.”
“Well go and get one!”
“But how much does it have to move, Guv?”
“Never mind that, just blow the bloody whistle!”
Last year I was officer in charge of a sector on a serious incident where I had a young firefighter who had been detailed with the exact same brief as me 28 years previous.
I asked him: “What’s your job?”
“Safety Officer boss,” came the reply.
“Oh yeah, what does that involve?”
“I’m watching that shoring system. If it moves I’ve got to tell someone.”
“What range of movement are you watching for and how will you raise the alarm?”
“With my whistle!”
That was just a few months ago.
I have personally attended thousands of incidents and I would say over a hundred have involved very, very dangerous situations where stability was the primary concern.
Some examples of incidents include high-sided vehicles in a Road Traffic Collision (RTC), a vehicle impact, an unsupported wall following a burn out, a destabilised bridge following storm damage. All of these scenarios and more could cause injury or worse to emergency service workers or the public. And yet we still rely on a whistle for protection!
Stability of unsafe structures including fire or water damaged buildings is always a concern for fire fighters but it was 2001 and a deployment with the United Kingdom International Search and Rescue team (UKISAR) that really brought home these concerns.
We were deployed to Gujarat in India after an earthquake which peaked at 7.9 on the Richter scale which devastated the region. It claimed almost 20,000 lives and left 160,000 people injured and more than 600,000 homeless.
I was Officer in Charge (OiC) of the operational side of a combined team from Manchester and Leicestershire.
During one deployment in Gujarat we spent more than seven hours tunneling through three floors and a wall in a collapsed building to recover a four-year-old boy and his mother.
As we cut through floors and walls in a collapsed three storey building we had no idea if we were weakening the building, potentially weakening the building and causing collapse.
On return to the UK the full implications of what could have happened troubled me. Our actions could have further weakened the building and caused further collapse.
I decided I had to try and find a piece of equipment that would keep me and my colleague’s safe in such scenarios.
I wanted to find something that would accurately monitorslight movement and provide allow crews advanced warning of movement, vital information on potential further movement or collapse.
I knew this would be difficult to locate as we had nothing in the UK and after weeks of research, reading fire magazines, going to the library, ringing dealers (no internet in those days) it was clear there was nothing available.
Shortly after Gujarat I was seconded to a British Government initiated project designed to provide USAR resilience and I enjoyed four years teaching skills such as entering buildings, safely mitigate collapse risks, shoring and other techniques.
My concern over site stability risk continued to nag at me particularly as we continued to train in hazardous conditions in which stability was a concern.
I returned to the Greater Manchester Fire Service and was introduced socially to a local businessman, Rory O’Rourke, the CEO of the Datum Group.
Datum is regarded as UK leaders in geotechnical and structural monitoring. For the past two decades they have been leading the way in developing new technologies to monitor structures and infrastructure for the transportation, construction, mining and utility industries.
We discussed my concerns and set about developing a possible solution and the WASP (Warning Alarm for Stability Protection) was created, the world’s first monitoring device for stability protection.
The WASP is a simple, rugged, accurate and easy to use device with multi-purpose attachments for any scenario. Once in position and armed it will provide continuous monitoring for movement and alarms if limits are reached.
The unit measures vibration from 0.1 to 100 Hz and movement from 0.1 to 2.6 degrees.
The WASP replaces the subjective visual assessment of a crewman and their whistle who could easily be distracted with a continuous and automated monitoring method.
My experienced gained over the past 28 years has been invaluable in the process of designing the WASP as it can be used on literally any unstable site and in any environment.
WASP was launched in September 2016 at The Emergency Services Show after an extensive trial period. I was touched to receive plaudits from my colleagues around the UK who could see the obvious benefits and congratulated me and my team on our achievement.
London Fire Brigade Deputy Commissioner Peter Cowup praised WASP Rescue for the ‘vital contribution’ it played in the Exercise Unified Response – this exercise involved 5,000 people from 70 organisations across Europe.
A number of UK fire services have since adopted the WASP and it was used by Kent Fire and Rescue to monitor the stability of a pedestrian bridge which collapsed onto the M20. It was used in the rescue of a worker buried under tonnes of cheese in a distribution warehouse in Shropshire.
The WASP is now part of the UKISAR equipment manifest and protects fire crews internationally in Singapore, Hong Kong, India, Germany and the USA.
I’ve been thinking of the risks associated with unstable structures and hazardous rescue sites for many years and creating the WASP is only part of the solution but it’s a start.
I genuinely believe the WASP will improve crew safety and I’m surprised every day when I see it in action that this risk hadn’t previously been addressed and it’s immensely satisfying to think I have provided a solution to an age of problem.
Finally, perhaps we can hang up those whistles and retire them to the museum alongside those green woolly suits and leather boots.
For more information, go to www.wasp-rescue.com