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A Horse Rescue Unit in action

A fascinating insight into the work of the West Sussex Fire and Rescue Horse Rescue Unit

West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service responds to a variety of emergencies, including fires, road traffic collisions, chemical spills and flooding. The service also has a Technical Rescue Unit (TRU), which was formed in 2006. This is a specialist crew that can be mobilised to incidents where the rescue method may be significantly more complex. 

There are 12 members of staff in the team that provide a 24/7 response, 365 days a year, with a minimum of four personnel on duty at any time. The team is based at Horley Fire Station, but immediately responds to emergencies via a pager system at evenings and weekends. Each member of the TRU has an “on-call” vehicle to use when necessary. 

They attend many incidents where horses need to be rescued. Over the years, the team has responded to callouts where horses have been stuck in ditches, rivers, cesspits and swimming pools. During a rescue, the team works closely with the vets and the vast majority have a positive outcome, involving a safe rescue with minimal injuries.

Ed Lyall, who is a veterinary surgeon and Director of the Sussex Equine Hospital, has worked with the team several times. “They have always provided the most amazing response, and have a solution for dealing with the relevant problem encountered. My last incident with them was when a horse fell into a river. On arrival, there was a large number of officers, vehicles and animal lifting equipment. An inflatable raft worked in conjunction with their RIB [rigid inflatable boat] and in a short time the casualty was on dry land ready for me to examine. The owner was delighted and the horse fine.” 

Each crew member has gained an Animal Rescue Level 3 qualification through Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, working closely and training with BEVA vets, the RSPCA and Brinsbury College Equine Campus – they regularly attend the campus for large animal handling training.

The rescue of a horse called Finnigan from a dyke
The rescue of a horse called Finnigan from a dyke
Finnigan was reunited with its owner after its unscheduled dip
Finnigan was reunited with its owner after its unscheduled dip

Vehicles and specialist equipment 

Currently, the unit has nine operational vehicles and a powered boat in their fleet. Four of these make up their everyday “on-call” vehicles and they each contain a different selection of equipment. 

There are two Ford Rangers with four-by-four capability and winches. One is predominantly used as an animal rescue vehicle and carries a variety of equipment such as an electric winch, which is mounted on the vehicle. It also has a selection of strops to use when rescuing large animals. 

One of these strops is designed to spread the weight of a horse and is used in conjunction with a spreader bar and quick release system to ensure the safety of the horse throughout the lift. It also includes a large selection of horse and cattle head collars, lead ropes and lunge lines for maintaining control and contact with an animal.

A pony was pulled from the bushes near Hurstpierpoint, Sussex
A pony was pulled from the bushes near Hurstpierpoint, Sussex

The other Ford Ranger is used as a water rescue vehicle and carries inflatable rescue paths that can be used on mud, ice and unstable ground, floating lines and rescue rafts. 

There are also two Ford Transit vans. One of the vans is used for rope rescues and carries technical search equipment such as team rope kits (in addition to their personal rope rescue equipment), which contain items needed to set up safe anchors for rope systems. It also contains three different types of stretchers and apparatus that can be used to locate casualties. 

The second van contains equipment for spate weather conditions and is therefore flexible with its additional stowage, but will always contain a minimum of two chainsaws and two 100m ropes. 

A Mercedes Unimog with a 12-tonne capacity has a crane mounted onto it that is often used for any lifting that is required at an animal rescue. It is an extremely well-valued vehicle for many rescue roles within West Sussex. This vehicle also carries a set of animal rescue equipment very similar to the equipment in the Ford Ranger. 

The TRU is an Urban Search and Rescue Team, so they also have a range of Prime Movers in their fleet. They contain over 2,700 items of equipment for use at collapsed structure and major transport network incidents. 

Finally, a Land Rover Defender is used as a resilience vehicle and can replace any of the on-call vehicles if necessary, or provide an additional vehicle during spate conditions such as flooding or when incidents require more personnel or equipment. The wide range of fleet vehicles and equipment is vital for the team as their capabilities are endless.

Use of the heavy lifting cradle makes ease of access that much better
Use of the heavy lifting cradle makes ease of access that much better
A horse almost back to normality after a rather muddy experience
A horse almost back to normality after a rather muddy experience
Tender loving care is required after a difficult muddy rescue
Tender loving care is required after a difficult muddy rescue

Seven years ago, the TRU was called to an incident in Sidlesham, West Sussex, where a pregnant horse had fallen into a 10-foot-deep hole that was used to dispose of glass from a greenhouse. The pit had filled with water and the horse had been stuck there overnight before it was brought to the attention of a member of the public.

Once the team had arrived, they entered the pit wearing dry suits and used the Unimog, alongside specialist rescue equipment, to safely rescue the horse. Fortunately, the horse escaped with minor injuries and it went on to deliver a healthy foal.

There is a wide range of lifting equipment available; it is important to ensure the right one is used
There is a wide range of lifting equipment available; it is important to ensure the right one is used

This incident highlights the necessity of having a specialist team that can work in difficult conditions to perform involved rescues. With Sussex having such a large equine population it is nice to see that owners and veterinary surgeons have the support of such a dedicated team at their disposal!

Some of the crew with the Brooke Sussex charity rescue ponies at Sussex Equine Hospital Open Day in May 2018
Some of the crew with the Brooke Sussex charity rescue ponies at Sussex Equine Hospital Open Day in May 2018

John Periam

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