HMS Kent trains with emergency services

Sailors from HMS Kent and the emergency services showed how they could work together in the event of an explosion in the county.

Crew from the frigate, police, firefighters and ambulance crews used the Royal Navy’s unique disaster training complex to prepare for a combined response to an emergency on the North Kent coast.

For more than 70 years the people of Sheerness have lived with the WW2 ammunition ship SS Richard Montgomery, sunk on a sandbank a couple of miles offshore.

Aboard the vessel, which went down in bad weather at the height of the Battle for France in 1944, are around 7,000 bombs of various sizes – 1,400 tonnes of high explosives in all.

A worst case scenario in the event of an explosion was played out at Bull Point in Devonport Naval Base, Plymouth, where crews of all Royal Navy ships practise providing disaster relief and humanitarian aid – typically after a hurricane or earthquake.

A disaster exercise is primarily a test of ship’s ability to firstly plan, then carry out dynamic command and control of its personnel and equipment.

Lieutenant Commander Richard Talbot

Collapsed buildings with people trapped inside, flooded homes, fires, downed power lines, crashed cars and distraught citizens (played by local volunteers) are all thrown into the mix to test sailors and Royal Marines; every ship must pass a DISTEX – DISasTer relief Exercise – as part of their extensive training regime before a warship deploys around the globe.

“A disaster exercise is primarily a test of ship’s ability to firstly plan, then carry out dynamic command and control of its personnel and equipment,” explained Lieutenant Commander Richard Talbot, overseeing the exercise for the RN’s training organisation, FOST.

“It tests both flexibility and ability to put a basic plan into practice – then be able to react and adapt as the situation ashore develops. And if there’s one thing that the military excels at it’s planning – planning under pressure especially.

“There can be no better illustration of this than the role played by HMS Daring in 2013 in response to the Philippines typhoon and HMS Ocean and RFA Mounts Bay in the Caribbean after the hurricanes of 2017.”

Increasingly, blue light services and local authorities are invited to make use of the facilities at Bull Point so they are better able to cope with a major incident, such as the Manchester Arena bombing, the London Bridge terror attack or Lockerbie disaster.

But there are times when the civilian authorities at home are overwhelmed by a situation – such as the severe flooding in early 2014 or the Novichok attack in Salisbury last year – and require extra personnel, skills and kit, which is where the armed forces come in: officially Military Aid to Civil Agencies.

HMS Kent brings personnel, specialist engineers, trained firefighters, electricians, chefs, medics, cutting gear, emergency supplies, and fresh water to help on the ground, her boats can ferry casualties to the ship for longer-term treatment in the sickbay, and the Merlin helicopter can carry out rapid reconnaissance of a disaster zone and move people into and out of otherwise inaccessible areas.

“Working alongside the ‘blue light’ services has been a steep learning curve for everyone,” Lt Cdr Talbot added.

“In an operation such as this, military personnel have to adapt to the way the civilian authorities work and think. Kent has had to rapidly change her mindset from training for high-intensity warfare to providing humanitarian aid.

“Overall, the exercise was a huge success. It proved that military and civilian emergency services can work together.”