Why is Surrey outsourcing flood rescues?

By Sam Wilson
BBC News

Image caption,
Private firm Specialist Group International is carrying out rescue missions in Surrey

For Sean and Alison Forsey, it did not much matter who plucked them to safety.

That the approaching heroes were private contractors rather than firefighters or soldiers was the last thing on their minds.

Mrs Forsey was given a piggy-back while her husband waded through water up to his thighs to the waiting Land Rover.

Trapped since January at the end of a 400-yard track called Laleham Reach in Chertsey, Surrey, they had decided to call it quits.

The water was initially just round their house, but then spread the entire length of the lane and "is just getting deeper and deeper", Mr Forsey says.

The long wade to the outside world was becoming more treacherous.


"The house seems to be okay at the moment - but it feels isolated and vulnerable and freezing cold coming back and fro through this water."

So how does it feel to be rescued? "Well it is a relief. Enough is enough now," says Mrs Forsey.

Their saviours are from Specialist Group International (SGI), described by founder Peter Faulding as "the only blue-light private company in the country".

They have a contract with Surrey Fire and Rescue - another example of civil services being outsourced.

Image caption,
Specialist Group International says it has never carried out flood work on this scale before
Image caption,
The specialist rescue team has been providing back-up to the emergency services during the floods
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Residents are urged to make their own decisions about whether to leave their homes during daylight hours

And they have not just been called in for the floods but provide back-up to the fire brigade - and, indeed, front-line services - all year round.

One of the team rescuing the Forseys is Martin Barrett, 29, an ex-Royal Marine. Many of his colleagues are former servicemen.

He says they have done flood work before but "never on the scale of this".

"We did the River Mole at Christmas. That was localised but worse than this," he says.

The Mole suffered a sudden emergency with fast-moving floodwaters. Founder Peter Faulding reckons they saved five lives in that operation.

Mr Barrett and his team take a long time to reach the Forseys, picking slowly along Laleham Reach with a sweeper ahead feeling for underwater hazards.

Dusk is falling, and they check on anyone they pass, to reassure them.

"People will hold out while they can but concerns set in when it gets colder. Or if they lose power," Mr Barrett says.

And rescue missions are trickier, and take longer, in the dark.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The River Thames at Chertsey Bank has been flooded for days with more heavy rain forecast
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Residents in Chertsey are forced to abandon their homes as the water level continues to rise

"That's why we advise people to make their choices - whether to stay or leave - early in the day."

He says two teams, including his, of about six people each, had rescued 39 people on Tuesday by dusk and they were due to continue into the night.

Mr Faulding says his teams are on duty round the clock during the floods.

Private or public

Among their assets are a fleet of vehicles, six boats of different sizes and a helicopter, which on Tuesday was flying over the area gathering pictures that were sent straight to the Cobra meeting chaired by the prime minister.

He says his staff offer capabilities that fire brigades and police services are cutting back on, or cannot maintain.

"We're unique in what we do - over a wide area and wide discipline. That includes a professional dive service for the Fire Service; rope rescue - so for crane structures, and suicide bids, and so on; confined spaces - so people trapped under buildings; and swift-water rescue."

SGI signed a 12-month pilot contract with Surrey County Council in 2012, in an experiment backed by the government. It has been extended to 2015.

The contract was criticised by the Fire Brigades Union, which said increasing fire engine crews from four to five was a more pressing use of money.

Mr Faulding would not put a figure on the contract but suggested the FBU was wrong when it estimated more than £1m a year.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
The British Army has supported the emergency services in helping flood victims
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Some residents gave hope of remaining in their homes as the flooding worsened

Surrey FBU spokesman Richard Jones said it could hire 35 full-time firefighters for that - and there was a shortage of about 60 in Surrey.

He said so few SGI people were working for the price of the contract, that they were "the most expensive form of emergency service in the UK".

Councillor Kay Hammond defended the deal, saying the last few weeks showed how Surrey Fire and Rescue and SGI worked "together as a highly professional team", adding "you really can't put a price on people's lives".

"SGI has a wealth of experience and provides rescue expertise we don't currently have in a cost effective way... Our contract with them makes Surrey a safer place. For example, more people die in incidents in the water than need to be rescued from house fires, so enhancing this capability will save lives."

But the fire service felt further undermined when SGI provided cover in Surrey during a firefighters' strike last October.

That may well come into play when other councils consider whether to repeat Surrey's experiment across the country.

SGI's Mr Faulding said the dilemma for councils was how to train firefighters with the latest skills while also keeping up a full-time shift pattern.

In the context of cuts not just to fire but also police services, several of which are losing their own dive teams, he said Surrey's deal was "great value for money".

The middle of a full-scale rescue effort may not be the best time to consider coldly the merits of public versus private.

The distinction is not pre-occupying Sean Forsey as he is carried to safety by Martin Barrett and his team.

"We're just thankful that they're here really. We feel a bit of a drain on resources, not being ones to normally ask for help. But it's a nice feeling to be getting out."