MIRTIn any crisis, we are familiar with seeing the emergency services – police, fire and rescue and ambulance services – leap into action. But in North Yorkshire there is another team that works alongside these emergency services to support the victims, whether the crisis affects one family or a whole community.

This is the Major Incident Response Team (MIRT), which is part of North Yorkshire County Council and City of York Council’s emergency response, and its work has now been recognised with a York and District Medal, awarded by City of York Council and The Press, for the magnificent support the team’s members gave to victims of the Christmas floods in York and North Yorkshire.

MIRT is a team of about 25 volunteers, some working, some retired and from a wide variety of backgrounds. The team is managed by Alex Sutcliffe who joined as a volunteer ten years ago, after spending 16 years working in the NHS and then with the district council before working with the county council. Her interest has always been to work in an area where she can provide a service to people.

Alex says: “It was my dream job to be able to bring my experience to this role and lead this incredible team of very skilled individuals that want to help and make a difference”.

Explaining the team’s role, she adds: “I talk about the three Fs: facts, feelings and future. We get the facts; we let people talk about their feelings; then we work with them on what their future is going to look like. With smaller incidents, people often just need to tell their story, then they can move forward. I recently worked with a family that had lost their husband and father and after two meetings we were able to support them in considering the next steps and what the future may hold.”

MIRT was born out of the 1980s, the “decade of disasters” that saw incidents including the Lockerbie air crash, Zebrugge ferry sinking, Kegworth air crash, King’s Cross fire, Marchioness sinking and Bradford City fire. In the wake of these disasters, a government report found that while immediate emergency response was generally good, there was a need for public sector services to support people caught up in or affected by such traumatic events.

The County Council took up the challenge and as pioneers formed MIRT in 1991. The service is provided on a 24-hour basis and can be called in by local authorities or the emergency services.

The team offers practical and emotional support. Volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, including social care, health and the voluntary sector, but there are no specific requirements.

The team is responsible for setting up rest centres for North Yorkshire County Council and City of York Council during emergencies. If it is necessary to evacuate a community for flooding, or any other dangerous situation, MIRT will set up a rest centre and look after the emotional welfare of anyone who comes into the centre.

Incidents the team has been involved in include the Dunkeswick air crash in 1995, the Selby rail crash in 2001, flooding in Boroughbridge and Topcliffe several years ago and more recently the house explosion in Haxby and the Christmas floods. MIRT’s day to day work is linked to smaller incidents, such as road accidents and suicides.

Alex summarised their key role stating, “Although our title includes ‘major incident’ we know that if something has happened to a community or family, which has taken them out of their everyday life, this is major to them.

“It is about emotional resilience. Emergency services have to deal with getting back to the normal day-to- day running of things, but there are still people with emotional needs.

“Sometimes, people don’t understand the emotions they are going through and that is where we can help. We can work with people for as long as necessary. We are not all trained counsellors, but we can refer people on to medical professionals, if necessary.”

North Yorkshire County Council leader Carl Les, who is Executive Member for Emergency Planning, said: “MIRT is an excellent example of volunteers coming forward to support individuals and communities across the county. One of our top priorities as an authority is to support the vulnerable in our communities, and this includes those that are made vulnerable by a personal trauma or wider emergency. MIRT is essential in providing this support and thoroughly deserves the honours it has received.”

Volunteers’ views

Margaret Connelly is a volunteer with MIRT. In her working life, she is a behaviour specialist. She has set up counselling teams in Kenya dealing with the trauma and aftermath of violence after elections. She also worked for six years for Childline as a counsellor and mentor. When she saw MIRT was recruiting, she joined.

“It is a lovely team, very supportive, and it is doing a really good job,” she says. “It enhances your life skills. It is a fabulous team to work with and brings together people from all walks of life.”

Recently, Margaret was involved with MIRT in the York flooding at Christmas and the Haxby house gas explosion in February.

“In the York floods we were asked to set up a rest centre,” she says. “We would deal with people coming in who had been rescued from their homes. We would make them comfortable and talk to them, because some were very upset.

“After the Haxby gas explosion we provided support to some of the local families. Other members of the team knocked on neighbours’ doors to check everyone was OK.”

Margaret describes being part of MIRT as a life-enhancing experience. Margaret and Caren, along with some of their MIRT colleagues were recently invited to the Queen’s Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in recognition of the work they do as volunteers for MIRT.

“Rather than watching something on television and thinking I wish I could do something, when you belong to MIRT you can do something,” she says.

Caren Horsfield has been a MIRT volunteer for 19 years. She was already volunteering with Cruse Bereavement Care, working with people dealing with a sudden death, and felt her skills would be useful to MIRT. She was also influenced by the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster.

“I felt very strongly about how those people were treated,” she says.

Following the Selby rail crash, Caren supported some of those affected for a couple of years, helping them not only in the immediate aftermath but during the court case and inquest that followed.

“I think people find it valuable, because you are able to give them information they need,” says Caren. “When people go through a trauma it is very hard for them to access some of their cognitive ability, so it is sometimes difficult for them to take in information.”

Caren can’t see herself giving up her MIRT role.

“It becomes part of your life,” she says. “It’s as natural as breathing.”

More MIRT volunteers sought

Alex is keen to hear from people who would be interested in joining the MIRT volunteers.

She says: “We are told there is no other team like us, that we are unique. We still have some of our original members from 25 years ago. They are so committed that they don’t want to give up the work.

“I would like to hear from people who think they have something to offer and would like to do work that can make a difference to individuals or communities. It is not for the faint-hearted. You need to be a good communicator and want to help people.”

For more information, contact Alex on 01609 532217 or at alex.sutcliffe@northyorks.gov.uk.