Calm in the face of disaster and chaos

A navy helicopter
A navy helicopter

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The ship’s helicopter sets down on an uninhabited island as HMS Dragon’s crew prepares to deal with the major civil emergency unfolding before them.

A gas explosion has knocked another helicopter out of the sky, and the resulting fire and chaos has trapped a group of birdwatchers in a building.

There are casualties that need immediate rescue, fires to fight, and missing people who need to be found.

Fortunately, the flames are fake and the casualties are just pretending.

And the lonely island? It’s actually a mock village, set up within the walls of Plymouth’s naval base.

But for the crew of the Portsmouth-based warship, the situation is one they could easily come across in real life.

And as one of the Royal Navy’s newest and most advanced warships, HMS Dragon must be ready to deploy anywhere in the world to tackle any challenge thrown at her.

So the ship’s company are being put through their paces this month in a rehearsal for the UK’s civil emergency contingency plan.

Lieutenant Commander John Fitzpatrick, the ship’s executive officer, sat ashore at the disaster nerve-centre to oversee the exercise unfolding.

He said: ‘This gives us all a rare chance to rehearse emergency response.

‘In this case we are making life difficult for ourselves by simulating injuries to birdwatchers trapped by a gas explosion on an uninhabited island where there is no community and therefore, no hospital or emergency services.

HMS Dragon has been sent in and we are effectively another emergency service, but with multiple skills on board.

‘Coming in from the sea on a remote island we can be first on the scene before the established emergency services and in this case are acting as an interim medical ship before transport to a hospital on the mainland.’

For the ship’s company, the opportunity to play out war games is vital.

The ship could be deployed anywhere and anytime in the world.

Few could have predicted the sudden need for Royal Navy forces to be deployed in a military intervention against Libya, which saw several warships sent to fend off Muammar Gaddafi’s forces and rescue British citizens.

But it’s not only battles the ship needs to be ready for — disaster relief and humanitarian aid are just as important.

Lt Cdr Fitzpatrick added: ‘The ship can be deployed anywhere and anytime in the world according to the UK government’s requirements.

‘This includes responding to military taskings and civil emergencies and conflicts.’

Under the direction of the emergency services of South Wales Police, South Wales Fire and Rescue Service and the Welsh Ambulance Service, HMS Dragon’s helicopter was sent in to take the worst of the wounded to a stand-in hospital in Cardiff.

Meanwhile, the multi-skilled crew were sent on to the island to fight the fires, tend to casualties and conduct search and rescue for anyone unaccounted for. Warrant Officer Dai Charles, HMS Dragon’s executive warrant officer, co-ordinated the ship’s various rescue teams.

He said: ‘All sailors have various jobs on board and among them are emergency roles like firefighting and medical.

‘Warships have to be self-contained when hundreds of miles from land.

‘This is ideal for emergency response and there is nothing better than working with the professionals in their fields to sharpen your skills.

‘Once the sailors are off the ship and on land they are out of their normal environment, but they soon get into the swing of it under pressure and are responding very well.’

HMS Dragon is one of six Portsmouth-based Type 45 destroyers, the most advance warship the country has ever built.

Commissioned earlier this year, she is the fourth in line alongside Daring, Dauntless, Diamond, Defender and Duncan.

They are equipped with the most sophisticated and accurate weapon, sensor and electronic warfare technology, and can fend off air attacks using Sea Viper missiles which knock out flying targets up to 70 miles away.

After a job well done in Plymouth, the tests and trials are not over for HMS Dragon.

The ship is due to undertake sea trials off Devon and Cornwall as the next stage of operational training, before stepping up to the plate in readiness to protect the country’s interests worldwide.