Taking the HEAT out
‘There were people from War Child, Christian Aid, Save The Children and… me, a clown’
I’ve been to some of the world’s most dangerous places – The Congo, Syria, Chernobyl, Gloucester… but I’ve never done any training for these trips. Sure, when I know that I’ll be going into Gloucester, I’ll follow some basic home-made rules – let people know where I’m going, never make eye contact, don’t eat the local food, carry a cosh under the driver’s seat…
These are things that I’ve just picked up out of bitter experience. I trigger my own set of precautions depending on where it is I’m going.
I’m about to go somewhere exceedingly dodgy – the forgotten war in the Ukraine on the border between Ukraine and Russia. I’m off there as an ambassador for Save The Children and they insisted that I do a four-day HEAT course (Hostile Environment Awareness Training). To do this, I had to travel to another hot-zone – Kettering, in the Midlands where the course takes place in a scout camp.
I arrived not knowing what to expect but pretty sure that I was going to loathe the whole experience. Most of the people on the course were aidworkers about to be deployed to posts around the world. People always think about journalists and soldiers getting into trouble abroad – these are people who have signed up for the job, but aid workers want to help people and the fact that they become targets is heartbreaking.
We kicked off with my worst fear, standing in a large circle introducing ourselves – there were people from War Child, Christian Aid, Save The Children and… me, a clown. I announced that I was an alcoholic and that I thought that I might be in the wrong room? It didn’t go down very well so I kept quiet and observed from there on.
It was actually a fascinating four days. Two of the days were spent learning to deal with first aid emergencies – heart attacks, IED explosions, gunshot wounds, stabbings… it was pretty hardcore stuff and I was soon pouring blood clotting powder into Bernard’s gaping wounds that were pumping out blood. Bernard was a realistic mannequin with a wig that reminded me of Limahl from Kajagoogoo. Bernard appeared to have been very unlucky in his travels as he had lost a foot, had a bolt stuck in his other leg, had two catastrophic bleeding wounds on his thighs and shrapnel wounds on his torso.
I learned to bandage up amputated stumps and wrap cling-film loosely around badly burned hands after pouring water on them for 20 minutes.
We also learned what to do in a carjack (eyes down, be very cooperative) and how to react to a grenade (turn away, take one step and throw yourself to the ground shouting “GRENADE” as loudly as you can). I couldn’t help wondering what the Argos warehouse that neighboured the scout camp thought when they heard the shouts of grenade.
“Bloody hell, scouts have changed since my day, Fred!”
Then came the implementation of our training. We headed off on a simulated mission into the kingdom of Claritania that was situated on an abandoned US air force base and had tracks running though woods with weird old buildings dotted about. I’m not going to give away too much of what happened on our day in the country as I don’t want to ruin the surprise for anybody else doing the course. Suffice to say that it was an eventful visit and that my Tripadvisor review will not be overly positive.
My main worry was the cringe factor. I knew that they had hired some actors to play the parts of baddies, refugees and victims. I was dreading the over-acting and cheesy non-realistic scenarios, but I was astonished as to how good the actors were. Of course, it turned out later that most of them were not actors – just barmen and students roped in for the day. I can smell an ‘actor’ a mile off but these guys were brilliant, so much so that I nearly lost it with the wailing woman who had taken a direct hit in the refugee camp and was going hysterical. Mental note – do not do this in the field.
I returned to the Cotswolds wiser and more able to deal with crisis situations. Having said this, I still took a wide detour around Gloucester. There’s no point inviting trouble.