More than rescuing cats stuck up trees

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The crews at Wellingborough fire station are specially trained in water and animal rescues.

Features editor Joni Ager finds out more about the work of the animal rescue unit and the treacherous conditions they often face.

Firefighters have long been associated with rescuing cats stuck up trees, but these aren’t the only animals that sometimes need help in getting out of sticky situations.

The cold snap in February saw a spate of incidents in Northamptonshire where the fire service was called to help horses and dogs that had fallen through the ice.

Firefighters at Wellingborough and Mereway in Northampton are specially trained to do water rescues but it is only the crews based at Wellingborough that have advanced animal rescue training.

Because of the dangers involved, there is national guidance on how to deal with people or animals who need rescuing from water.

Going into a lake or river carries numerous risks, from submerged objects below the surface to hypothermia and diseases such as hepatitis and Weil’s disease.

If firefighters can carry out a rescue without entering the water they will, through a combination of techniques such as throw lines, reach poles and rowing out to the casualty. However, the crews have the equipment and specialist training to enter the water if necessary.

In extreme conditions, the incident commander will rotate the crew so a firefighter is not in the water for more than 20 minutes at a time to avoid the onset of hypothermia.

The type of animal can also present certain challenges. For example, a horse has a ‘kicking zone’, so firefighters will position themselves away from its legs during a rescue if possible.

All too often, the animal’s owner will put themselves in danger by trying to get their dog or horse out of the water.

Yet in many cases a dog will manage to get itself out, leaving the owner in serious trouble,

Neil said: “The biggest risk to us is going into the water. Members of the public just think we should go in and at this station we are trained to do this work but we do have to consider the risks.

“It is not just a matter of saving someone, we have to make sure it is safe to do so.

“There is often public pressure. Someone’s horse might be trapped in the water they are shouting ‘Rescue him!’ but people also need to be responsible for their animals.”

Pet owners are very grateful when the fire service does rescue their animal.

Five letters of thanks were sent to Wellingborough fire station after the rescues they carried out in February.

But there are occasions when they have to make a decision not to attempt a rescue because it is too dangerous.

Neil said: “We have a duty of care to render human services and we have to look at that holistically. If a situation presents more danger to us to rescue that animal we might have to look at some other outcome.

“We will try everything we can to rescue it but we might feel an animal is not viable. I can’t make that decision but I can say to the vet at the scene there is nothing we can do. It is a collective decision with the animal’s owner.”

The animal rescue unit gets called to incidents all over Northamptonshire and is one of the best equipped units in the country. Many other brigades come to Northamptonshire for training and advice.

The crew has a 4x4 vehicle which can reach remote rural areas and it is fully equipped with winches, inflatable crafts, ropes, hoses and various other equipment.

As well as horses, dogs and cats, they’ve rescued swans, ducks and muntjac deer, and a huge number of cows that fall into the water or go for a swim and can’t get themselves out.

The RSPCA will often deal with cases involving smaller animals and the fire service will call for expert advice when handling more unusual creatures such as snakes.

The brigade also have training at Moulton College where they can learn about these more unusual pets.

While animals falling through ice has kept the crews busy over winter, they also get animal rescue incidents throughout the year, though often in summer the animals are able to get themselves out of the water.

The summer also brings problems with children jumping into rivers from bridges or locks, which is incredibly dangerous.

Neil said: “The water might look inviting but you don’t know what’s below the surface or the diseases in the water.”

The firefighters in Wellingborough will be launching a programme of school visits this summer where they will give talks to children in Years 5 and 6 about water safety.