NEGOTIATING miles of winding corridors on Britain’s biggest warship can be tricky enough.
But imagine trying to do so battling through a raging inferno, with thick smoke clogging rooms and blistering temperatures scorching the skin.
That is the arduous challenge facing firefighters – both military and civilian – when tackling a blaze on board HMS Queen Elizabeth.
At 280m long and weighing in at 65,000 tonnes, the mighty warship is the biggest one ever built for the Royal Navy.
Complete with more than 3,000 different compartments spread over 12 decks, the £3.1bn vessel is a veritable maze – one that can be easy to get lost in.
But this week, a major exercise has been taking place deep in the bowels of the Portsmouth-based aircraft carrier to test just how emergency services would respond to a blaze on the ship when she is alongside in her city home.
Dozens of people were involved in the harbour fire exercise, one of the biggest training days of its kind.
It involved members from Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, Hampshire Ambulance Hazardous Area Response Team (Hart) and Portsmouth Naval Base’s Emergency Response Team (ERT).
It was the very first time external emergency services had the chance to get to grips with the supercarrier in a mock emergency situation.
And to make the event as realistic as possible, the ship’s company used training smoke to clog corridors and mock casualties in need of treatment and evacuation.
The conditions were tough, forcing the teams to work as one in the unfamiliar environment of the aircraft carrier.
‘It’s quite unnerving, it is a large ship,’ said station manager Rob Jenks, of Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service. ‘You get this wide-eyed moment when you first see the ship but then you just crack on.’
Rob, an 18-year veteran in the fire service, said the ship posed plenty of hurdles – not least from its enormous size.
‘The sheer size and scale of it is a challenge, it’s like a small shopping centre or industrial estate.
‘If you were to be taken on to it blindfolded and left in the middle of it you wouldn’t know it’s a warship.
‘In the scenario we worked on, to get to the scene of operation was about a 200m walk – that’s with guys in full kit. That was a challenge.’
Crews took over large swathes of the expansive Princess Royal Jetty – the specially-built jetty designed to accommodate both Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers – laying out kit and parking up fire engines.
The Hart and ERT teams had to triage, treat and extricate multiple casualties from between decks of the vast warship, while the firefighters had to fight blazes across several compartments.
About 30 firefighters from Southsea and Cosham took part in the training.
Rob, 39, added: ‘It would have to be a very significant event for the Royal Navy to call on us for help.
‘The likelihood of us having to attend the dockyard would be very low – the navy and dockyard crews are very well-drilled, equipped and capable.
‘But by preparing ourselves with exercises like this it ensures we are as ready and well prepared as we can be.’
A total of seven appliances joined the exercise, a response that would be ‘standard’, whether the fire was ‘on HMS Queen Elizabeth or a Hunt-class minehunter’, added Rob.
Chief Petty Officer Shaun Gibbs, of Queen Elizabeth, is one of the ship’s chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN)instructors and is responsible for training and assessing crews’ responses to these type of scenarios.
‘We hold weekly exercises to train our ship’s company to deal with a fire on board, but we rarely get the chance to train like this with external agencies,’ he said.
‘This is a first for the ship. It’s a great opportunity to ensure a combined element of training with the ERT, the fire service and the ambulance service.’
At the end of the day the teams held a debrief to identify lessons learnt and compile training points for the future.