Working animals test fire service skills

Military working horses and dogs put Leicestershine firefighters through their paces.

A military working horse covered in an ‘unknown chemical’ was one of two scenarios the Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service faced when they attended a decontamination workshop led by the Defence Animal Training Regiment, (DATR).

The one-day practical workshop saw 24 firefighters from crews across Leicestershire, including the Technical Rescue Team based out of the city’s Southern Fire Station, gather at Remount Barracks to consider the processes used in the decontamination of horses and dogs and to try out different procedures.

“This was a first for both of us,” said Major Drew Tootal, the Second-In-Command at the DATR. “The aim was to understand what the processes are should any animals come into accidental contact with a hazardous material.  It could be as simple as a dog coming into contact with a fuel oil, such as diesel during a search. Readiness comes through training and both sides have taken away several learning points from today that we will use to develop training.”

The day started with a demonstration on how to handle a horse by Chief Riding Instructor, Warrant Officer Class 2 Dan Powell. Advice included keeping a hand on the horse so that that it knows where the handler is at all times. The maximum number of Military Working Horses that can be held at the DATR is 396, with 214 out to grass rest and a further 155 within the stable complexes. With a committed staff of equine trainers, the DATR routinely has over 200 Military Working Horses on site.

The horse scenario saw instructions given by the Incident Commander, Crew Manager Ainsley Burton, after a military horse handler and his horse had come into contact with an unknown substance. The military handler had to dry clean as much of the ‘chemical’ off the horse and himself before they both entered a shower. This was built using a hose strung up between two fire engines. 

Ainsley Burton said: “It's been an interesting day and a very big learning curve for everyone. It was also an opportunity for the Army to see the equipment we have and our capabilities. It's been a really good test of our own operational procedures.”

The second stage of the scenario saw firefighters, wearing full protective suits, treat a further two contaminated horses.  They had the added problem of one horse not wanting to enter the shower.

“As we have seen today, you cannot assume every horse to act the same,” said Major Drew Tootal.  “Just because one horse will happily go between the two fire engines, it doesn’t mean they all will. This is where we can work together to come up with alternative solutions that will benefit not just ourselves, but the horse community as a whole, while keeping everyone safe in the process.”

The second scenario saw a Military Working Dog and his handler who had also “come into contact with an unknown chemical” during a search task put through a mobile decontamination tent that would be used for humans.  The firefighters gave directions to the dog handler through the screens built into the tent. The Canine Training Squadron at the DATR trains Military Working Dogs and their handlers for a variety of roles including search and protection.

“Our military working dogs and their handlers don’t normally do this type of training,” said Major Tootal. “So it gives us the opportunity to see how our animals would react, and how we can best care for them in an emergency, which for us is just as important as keeping our soldiers safe. We hope that today’s workshop leads to further collaboration with the Fire and Rescue Service so that we can both develop protocols to benefit animal safety”.