Three cars, one tanker, and bloodied victims screaming for their lives. But what looked like a horrific collision with multiple casualties and even a death, was in fact an emergency services drill, co-ordinated by Cheshire Fire & Rescue Service to test responses on the new Mersey Gateway bridge ahead of its opening.
The cars were from scrapyards, the injured all actors, but the emergency service teams were professionals acting as they would in a real-life situation.
More than 20 vehicles from across the Police, Fire & Rescue, and Ambulance services were involved in the exercises, which took place in wet weather conditions on Friday 8 September.
The drill was in preparation for the opening of the £1.7bn Mersey Gateway, as final stages of its construction are completed.
A 1,000-metre long bridge is the centrepiece of the Mersey Gateway project, which extends to nine kilometres of road and a series of major new junctions running throughout Runcorn and Widnes.
Sarah Downford-May, Cheshire Fire Service’s communications manager, said: “Because a service is constantly dealing with accidents in various locations, when a major development like this comes about, we create exercises to test our emergency teams’ capacity to deal with it.”
She added: “What then happens is that there’ll be a report made on the basis of the exercise, where we can see if any improvements need to be recommended.”
Place North West was at the scene to witness the emergency services in action.
A simulation of an accident was put in place on the bridge, with real vehicles in position as if there had been a collison. The exercise was treated as if it was a real event, with a call being placed through to the control centre. The responding fire engines did not use their sirens, just flashing lights, so as not to cause concern to the public.
As the fire engines arrived on the scene, actors covered in bloody make-up became animated and realistically distressed. Screams of “please help me!” and “I can’t move my legs!” were piercingly loud, despite the torrential rain. A member of the fire service started sawing off the driver’s door on one of the crashed vehicles, while a paramedic worked to pull a young woman out of her driver’s window from an upside down car.
As Downford-May said: “Something like this makes you realise the enormity of pulling a response together.”
She also pointed out that because road traffic incidents are decreasing, safety exercises like this help train the less experienced members of staff in how to respond to such accidents. Different scenarios and role plays were enacted, assessing the scenes and casualties to establish the best ways to help those injured both safely and quickly.
Additional members of staff, such as the Environment Agency, were also in attendance. A tanker spilling fuel was used as part of one of the exercises, imitating the kind of chemical spillage scenario which would require the EA’s involvement.
Merseylink, the construction consortium building the £600m Mersey Gateway, said the new bridge could open by mid-September. Even with delays, largely down to adverse weather conditions, it is anticipated the Mersey Gateway bridge will open no later than mid-October. The team said it will be able to give a definitive date around five days ahead of opening.
Steve Ollerhead, Merseylink’s project health & safety manager, said: “It is best practice to do something like this, even though it’s incredibly hard to co-ordinate. What was tricky for me was to make sure it was as safe as possible for all participants, including the emergency services.”
He was first contacted by Cheshire Fire around six months ago, and attended all meetings to help plan the procedure.
He added: “This isn’t a road yet. It’s still a construction site, so while everybody here is treating the drill as a road, for me I’m still overseeing it from a construction perspective. This is the biggest emergency services drill I’ve been involved with.”
The Merseylink Consortium was appointed by Halton Council as the construction company in 2014 on a 30-year contract to design, build, finance and operate the project.
The equity partners are Macquarie Capital Group, BBGI, and FCC Construcción. The construction joint venture is made up of Kier Infrastructure & Overseas, Samsung C&T and FCC Construcción. Emovis will deliver and operate the tolling solution for the consortium.
Various crossover points in the central reservation will enable traffic to move from one side to the other more easily, should an accident occur on the bridge.
Incidents will be monitored through a Smart Motorway system, enabling the consortium to track traffic issues and respond to delays.
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