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This week I talk about the recent fire on the remote island of the Isle of Coll. I discuss how the professionals and community responded and how this incident compares to others he has read about.

I tell people how to manage disasters not actually take part in one!

As a consultant, I tell people how to manage disasters and incidents, but rarely do I get caught up in one, nor am I involved in the response. Last Friday, I took part in an emergency response to a fire on the Isle of Coll as a part of the community effort. I thought I would share my experience with bulletin readers and discuss how it aligned with the many issues that occur in the disasters I read and study.

Isle of Coll

For those of you who are not familiar with the West Coast of Scotland, the Isle of Coll is a small island around 13×3 miles, with a population of 200 people. We have a part-time volunteer fire service which consists of some permanent residents of the island and a 4×4 fire engine. These volunteers are all trained firefighters and regularly practice how to respond to a fire.

No smoke…

The first I saw of the fire was in the afternoon during my last call of the day (we have a half-day on the last Friday of the month) when I saw smoke on the horizon. As I usually live in Glasgow, smoke in the distance is a regular occurrence therefore, I didn’t think much of it. Once my call finished, my wife, Kim and I got ready and headed off to Coll Hotel to enjoy the pubs being open. I messaged my brother who lives on the island, about the fire and asked if he knew what was going on. He replied instantaneously, informing me that a fire had started in a shed and the fire service had been mobilised to fight it. I assumed that everything was under control and continued to head to the pub. As we rounded the last corner, it was like a scene out of an apocalyptic film. Half the village looked like it was on fire, and there were palls of smoke rising, which reminded me of the pictures I had seen on TV, of the oil installations on fire in the Gulf War, spewing thick black smoke. We had no idea what to do, but Kim quickly hurried to the Hotel to see how she could help while I grabbed a jersey and mask and headed towards the nearest fire. For the next 5 hours, I joined the community effort alongside the fire service. By 21:30, we had all the fires out and returned home exhausted.

The local community are the first responders in most disasters

In most disasters, especially natural, widespread disasters like hurricanes, tsunamis, or earthquakes, the locals alone respond in the first 24 – 48 hours. National organisations such as the army or emergency responders arrive with heavy equipment and relief supplies much later. It was the same in this situation too, I saw a firefighter who was exhausted trying to catch his breath after inhaling smoke, and a couple of locals fighting the fire on their own. There was no organisation and nobody told me what I should do, so I promptly joined the two already working on putting out the fire that was heading towards the hotel. The only tools we had to fight the fire with, were beaters! You can see them in the picture below. Surprisingly, these were remarkably effective at putting out low-level heather and dry grass fires. While it was a low fire, it can get quite hot once it gets onto thick heather and grass it becomes impossible to fight with just a beater, so we had to allow it to burn until it reached thinner grassland.

Next, we headed up to the heath. As it was a windy day, if the fire wasn’t stopped it would be able to spread to the rest of the island. As there was no water up there and the firefighters couldn’t use their hoses it became a priority. Once again, there was no one directing the team, just a bunch of people working together, with no real organisation. I felt due to my experience and the fact I am in the planning and response industry, I should take some control of the situation and offer gentle direction.

I helped organise a line of people to start working on the fire extending outwards. Every so often a fire broke out where we had already put it out, threatening to ruin all the good work we had done. Several times I shouted over at the young, athletic members of our group to run over back to an area we had already put out as the fire restarted. The ground was extremely rough and it was very difficult to move around quickly! Although I did some basic organising, people did what they felt was right and worked in small groups with no one telling them what to do next. Many times I have seen communities come together quickly and seamlessly to work together during a natural disaster. However, people tend to do what they think the situation requires, rather than working from any plan that was developed beforehand or made up on the day.

We fought the fire with what we had on

The volunteers, unfortunately, had no access to a health and safety kit, we fought the fire with what we had on, an assortment of workwear and my ‘going to the pub’ clothes. Fires are dangerous and there is always the possibility that you could get surrounded by fire, fall into the flames or suffer from inhaling too much smoke. The thought of doing a risk assessment, going back to get appropriate clothing, PPE or deciding it was too dangerous to tackle the fire, didn’t even cross anyone’s mind. On the news after a natural disaster, you see the locals turning up in their flip-flops to help and save people, they’re not thinking about their own safety but want to help and inappropriate footwear isn’t going to stop them. Risk or health and safety assessments are perhaps a luxury to small disasters. I even noticed the island doctor in a fluorescent jacket, mask, goggles, and flip-flops. She was making sure everyone was okay and just didn’t have time to change her footwear! Of course, you don’t want casualties among volunteer responders, but it is a natural instinct to turn up quickly in whatever you’re wearing and get stuck in.

No plan…..

As there wasn’t a plan in place for a fire of this size, the kit and beaters for fighting the fire were also limited, fortunately, the firefighters had vehicles and water pumps. You quickly learn that a water hose will put down a fire far quicker than a line of people with beaters. Especially in those areas with thick heather that threatened several houses in the village. Proper equipment is much more effective than an improvised or manual kit.

Viability of professionals

In the areas where I worked there was little sign of professional firefighters. They occasionally would drive up on a quad bike to see what we were doing, or to provide food and water, then roar away. Over the years I have heard lots of criticism towards the professional responders in a disaster, the complaint is usually that the people actually responding seemed to be the locals and the professionals were nowhere to be seen. When you’re in the middle of an incident you have a very narrow view of what’s happening, especially when an incident is spread over a large area, as this fire was. Therefore, I feel these complaints can be quite unjustified.

On Coll just because I didn’t see that many firefighters, doesn’t mean that they had just left us to deal with the fire, in fact, they were just dealing with the situation elsewhere. I do believe that as a responder when and if you can, you should make an effort to be seen, avoiding any possible criticism. An example that springs to mind is the fire at Grenfell Tower. During the first few days after the fire, Kensington and Chelsea Council have heavily criticised for their lack of response. Their staff was out there dealing with the incident, but they weren’t visible as council employees. Only when they donned fluorescent jackets with their organisation and role on the back did the criticism stop.

Everyone wants to help

When a natural disaster occurs, everyone wants to play their part and be seen to be helping. It can be very difficult to know whether you should dive in and help or whether you’re in the way. One thing you don’t want to be seen as is a spectator, just to take photos or to be entertained at the expense of others. Many people such as my brother had a dilemma, as he is in the Coastguard he didn’t know whether to stay out of the way or come to help. My wife, Kim who is brilliant in emergencies, quite often caused by me, wanted to help too but there was nothing obvious to do. One positive thing many did do was go home to bring food and water to those responding. Nobody could complain that the people’s welfare had been neglected. There was so much generosity that towards the end of the day when someone shouted, “would anyone like a sandwich?” there were only a few takers as the responders had access to a lot of food throughout the day. Only when the sandwiches were found to be the Coll Hotel’s famous chicken and mayonnaise baguettes was there was a mad rush to get a sandwich.

Don’t forget the victims

The couple whose shed the fire had started in, also lost their house due to the spread of the flames. The firefighters did their best to save the house but it was unfortunately burnt to the ground, even the walls cracked due to the heat. The couple thankfully were unharmed but were left with the clothes they were standing in. Very quickly the call went out to get them toiletries, underwear and a change of clothes. Within hours they had enough stuff to keep them going for weeks. We also saw this quick response at Grenfell and Katrina, where people were very generous and donated anything they had to spare. The local authority at Grenfell was overwhelmed with vans full of donated items to help the survivors, they were then criticised for their failure to manage these spontaneous donations. In Coll, a fund was set up to raise £2000 to help the couple with expenses that weren’t covered by insurance, and within two days the fund surpassed £13,000! Starting a fund is a good way of channelling help from those who want to do something but you need to let people know when no more donations are required.

It’s very easy for those who weren’t affected by the fire to move on, and forget about the victims. This couple has lost everything. Take a look around yourself in your home and think about, if you lost everything you are surrounded by, the pictures, memorabilia, home comforts, how would this impact you? The day after the fire there was a social media post on behalf of the couple asking for people to keep an eye out for their two cats, Stior and Suilean. They weren’t in the house during the fire and they think the cats would have fled to somewhere on the island. As I write this I am not sure whether they have been found yet. In our response, we mustn’t forget the human and animal victims who will be affected for months and years to come by the incident.

As I said, being involved personally in an incident is a very grounding experience and reminds me why I do this job. The fire service and the local community have got a lot to learn from this incident, from what went well and what did not. If anything good comes out of a disaster, let it be the lessons learned to improve the response in the future. Next time I read about the responses to other disasters and incidents, I will be able to reflect on my own experience from this fire and see if their experiences were similar to mine.

Postscript as of 29 May 2021 – In major disasters you always hope for a glimmer of a happy ending, a child found on the rubble,10 days after the earthquake or a family united when they thought each other were dead. There is no small happy ending (yet) for the couple whose house burnt down, they still haven’t found their cats……….

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