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Water rescue team receives helping hand from trailer firm

Left to Right; David Watson (Vehicle and Equipment officer), David Fuller-Shapcott (Trustee), Andy Wright (Team Leader and Trustee). Credit: Hector Innes Photography

Europe’s top trailer maker is helping to save lives in Scotland by supporting volunteers from the UK’s oldest inland water rescue team. 

The Thomas Sheriff & Co trailer centre in Coldstream, on the English-Scottish border, has supplied a BV85 box van to the Borders Water Rescue Team (BWRT) to carry vital equipment during its emergency call-outs – and is now sponsoring their activities by offering free annual servicing.

The highly-trained team provides water-based search, rescue and recovery services in conjunction with the police, fire service and mountain rescue teams and has saved countless lives over the past 23 years.

Before the lockdown was announced, the charity had already responded to eight emergencies and played a crucial role in protecting lives as floodwater raged in the Scottish Borders at the start of the year.

The team, which covers the Scottish Borders and East Lothian local authority areas as well as a large area of Mid and West Lothian, assists the police in missing persons searches, swift water rescue, recovery and the evacuation of people and animals from flooding.

It was formed in 1997 by divers belonging to Kelso Sub-Aqua Club following two tragedies in the area, including the death of a firefighter who drowned after his fire engine went off a bridge into the River Tweed.

The founding members believed many deaths could be prevented with a local specialist water-based rescue team in place.

Now, the team’s activities are exclusively surface-based and powered by volunteers whose day jobs includes builders, farmers, painters, teachers, photographers, HGV drivers, finance directors and gardeners.

Founding member David Fuller-Shapcott, an arable farmer from Kelso, said a significant proportion of their work now focused on flood water evacuation and rescue.

“The biggest challenge with flooding is the fact people don’t realise how powerful flood water is,” said the 55-year-old, who was team leader for 21 years and formerly chairman.

“They may think driving through floodwater is safe and then their vehicle gets washed away. They might even think they can walk through it. This is as big a challenge for us than evacuating people from a house with floodwater.

“The fast-flowing water, unpredictable nature of floodwater is what poses the greatest risk.

“I suppose to the general public our job looks risky but because we’ve all had training it’s not as risky as you might think. We are trained to recognise the issues and dangers involved with water and importantly we respect it.”

The team formed in 1997 which makes it the oldest dedicated inland water rescue team in the UK.

“It was an idea in our collective heads and I suppose I crystallised that idea into something and was initially chairman,” said David.

“We had 12 volunteers to start with, most of whom were members of Kelso Sub Aqua Club. We all felt like we wanted to put something back into the community.”

The team gained formal recognition by the then Lothian and Borders Police (now Police Scotland) in 2003, signing a Memorandum of Understanding, and went on to secure charitable status in 2013, changing its name from Borders Underwater Search Team to Borders Water Rescue Team.

This opened the door to funding opportunities and enabled the team to apply for grants to help cover its annual costs which amount to £7,000-£8,000 a year.

The addition of an IWT BV85, which has replaced its original BV84 model, has enabled the team to safely transport kit to each emergency.

Aside from the addition of blue lights and a soon-to-be-fitted boat rack, the team has not needed to modify the trailer.

“It certainly does what it’s required to do,” explained dad-of-one David.

“The box van has a number of attractions. Apart from the light in the roof, you also have white doors for signage. We have sponsorship for the trailer and so the sponsors feature around the sides.

“The fact that it is galvanised steel chassis is also attractive when you’re working in an aquatic environment. There are absolutely no issues in terms of reliability. We’ve been very pleased with it. If we had to replace we would replace like for like which is testimony to the quality of Ifor Williams.

“We’re very grateful to Donald and his team at Coldstream for providing the servicing for free. Every bit helps and for a small charity we are very grateful for support.

Donald Jack, trailer centre manager at Thomas Sheriff’s Coldstream branch, said: “It’s an absolute privilege and pleasure to be involved with such a worthwhile local charity.

“The team does a great job keeping people safe and is made up of local volunteers. The BV85 was the most suitable trailer for the job and is not only tough but very reliable.”

Rob Small, a spokesperson for Ifor Williams Trailers, said: “The sky’s the limit with our box van trailers and it’s great to see them standing up to the test in a tough aquatic environment.

“These volunteers do a fantastic job, risking their own safety to save and protect lives and I’m proud Ifor Williams Trailers can play a small part in their heroic efforts.”

The charity currently has around 20 volunteers aged from early 20s to early 60s but has recently launched a recruitment drive to take numbers closer to 30.

Team members receive training from Rescue 3 Europe to various specialist levels and undergo monthly refresher exercises and training to maintain their skills.

“We have lots of non-water-based roles but if volunteers are to be water-based they need to have a good swimming ability and will be trained to understand and recognise the issues and dangers in fast-flowing water,” explained David, who has qualified as an advanced Swift Water and Flood Rescue Technician (SRT-A).

“The critical thing is to be able to commit time every month for training and to provide event safety cover to raise money for the organisation.

“There are a number of events including Iron Man contests and Total Warrior events that involve numerous water obstacles, all of which require safety cover and that’s where we step in.

“It’s an enjoyable way of fundraising. We are not affiliated with any government body and we receive no government funding. The mountain rescue teams in Scotland receive funding out of a joint pot but we are completely self-funded which makes it quite challenging, especially as the team costs between £7,000-£8,000 a year to run. This is for the vehicles, equipment, trailer and insurance.

“There’s also a lot of equipment involved in water rescue. To kit out a new team member you’re looking at £1300.”

Although it was a busy start to the year, the team’s activities came to an abrupt halt as coronavirus emerged.

“We had a quite a number of call outs in early March – and eight call outs since the start of the year which is busy for us – but it just stopped because people weren’t going out,” said David.

“We had no training because of the social distancing regulations. Now, for the last two weekends, we’ve had some training in small groups to catch up.

“We’ve never had a big enough team to create a rota. Our volunteers are committed to training on a monthly basis and we often get notice of a search before we get called out. Hopefully, that allows us to take time off work if required.”