Bethan Davies is the manager of Chemsafe, the chemical advice scheme that the National Chemical Emergency Centre (NCEC) provides to the emergency Services. She attended a day of training offered as part of Project Diffuse at Heaven Nightclub in London.
The training was delivered by the Metropolitan Police and aimed to give an immersive experience of an attack involving corrosive substances. It provided the audience with a practical insight on how to prepare for such an incident and how to react if one occurs.
Attacks with corrosive substances, both acids and alkalis, have occurred in the UK for many years for a variety of reasons.
However, the use of corrosive substances in acts of violence has seen a considerable rise in recent years, particularly in London. This has prompted changes in the law to restrict public access to certain chemicals and requires emergency services to prepare more thoroughly for such incidents. However, although the emergency services will be mobilised immediately when such an attack occurs, the speed of the response to any casualties will be critical to minimise the damage inflicted. Consequently, it is venue owners and staff, as well as onlookers that usually have the most important initial role in response. To ensure that licensees and businesses are fully prepared for such an attack, the Metropolitan Police designed a concept called Project Diffuse. The aim of Project Diffuse is to spread awareness of the rising prevalence of acidic and alkaline substances in violent attacks, and provide those who might be at the scene of such an incident with an understanding of the required first response to a corrosive substance attack.
The main thing in the event of exposure to a corrosive substance is to apply copious amounts of water to the affected area as quickly as possible and continue this until medical support is available. Staff are taught to familiarise themselves with available water sources – from the taps in the toilet area to the bottled water behind the bar. They are trained to prioritise the face, eyes and larger burns, while taking care not to wash the substance onto unaffected areas or allow the pooling of contaminated water around the casualty. The use of spray attachments to water bottles was also highlighted as a very simple way to prolong the water supply available and ensure a constant flow onto the casualty. As corrosive substances can be transferred to the skin of others, it was made clear that protective clothing (e.g. chemically resistant gloves as an absolute minimum) should be worn by those responding and the clothing of the casualty should be cut and gently removed unless it is sticking to the skin, in which case it is best to drench the area with water and wait for specialist help to arrive.
All those attending were able to witness the event unfold in real time, giving a full demonstration of how the various emergency services would respond and providing critical knowledge for anyone who might have to respond to the initial stages of such an incident. Even in the well-controlled environment of an exercise and despite the well-coordinated response shown by initial responders and the emergency services, the atmosphere felt, to some extent, chaotic at times, so it is difficult to imagine the impact of public panic in a real situation. Despite being well targeted to the actors involved in the scenario, approximately 20 audience members were splashed during the staged event, highlighting how quickly a very specifically directed attack can turn into a mass casualty situation.
Add to this the crush injuries that would be caused by people panicking to leave the venue and you truly start to understand the scale of what you could be faced with if an incident like this unfolded in front of you.
An expert panel followed the live demonstration during which speakers from each involved agency gave a series of presentations and answered questions posed by the audience. Included in this was information on how criminal methodologies evolve, appropriate consideration of venue evacuation, how to deal with the possible presence of an attacker and how to help preserve any available evidence after the response to the casualties has been dealt with, including the value of CCTV to any subsequent investigation.
– By Bethan Davies, Chemsafe manager