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See what it's like to be engulfed by flames from a petrol bomb: We try out police riot training

By Juliet Hounam | Crime | Published:

With a deep breath I lower the visor over my eyes – the last part of my body exposed to the glowing heat outside.

Reporter, Juliet Hounam, leaps through fire

Quickly, as the visor rapidly fills with steam, my vision is reduced to a series of moving shapes amongst the flames in front of me.

Head buried deep within my shield, I walk towards the threat, heart thumping. My surroundings have been reduced to a muddle of shapes and muffled noise.

I’m about to walk through a path of flames created by petrol bombs thrown at my feet as part of a police riot training exercise.

  • WATCH: Juliet is put through her paces

As I take the first step through the fire my undergarments cling with sweat to my limbs, which are clunky and unresponsive under the restrictive padding.

Disorientated, almost all of my senses and awareness are muted as if underwater, I stumble blindly onwards through acrid smoke.

The sound of smashing glass from the thrown-down bottles and whoosh of flames kick-starts my adrenaline levels.

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My only option is to keep walking through the blaze despite the overwhelming threat around me.

Flames crawl up my leg and I realise I am on fire.

Reporter Juliet Hounam leaps through fire for petrol bomb training

Shouts of ‘stamp your feet’ come from a murky figure, who appears in my line of sight bearing a fire extinguisher.

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I’m soaked through with sweat. This is what it is like to be the target of petrol bombs, albeit as part of a controlled training exercise.

We had just been given exclusive access to Staffordshire Police’s regional public disorder training centre, where officers experience annual ‘refresher’ training for a variety of passive and violent scenarios.

On this occasion, 50 officers were in the final phase of training during which they consolidate all their learning to respond to ‘high-level’, worst-case scenarios, such as petrol bombing.

The training centre, or Tactical Policing Unit, is located in and around a number of hangers at the RAF Cosford base.

Our reporter, Juliet Hounam, has a go in the kit

The first training ground to combine regions, for twenty years it has been instructing officers to criteria set out by the College of Policing.

Trainers from West Midlands, Staffordshire, West Mercia and Warwickshire Police gather there to drill up to 3,000 police officers per year.

Public order units or ‘riot police’ have long held a controversial image.

Their presence at events is often perceived as intimidating or aggressive, an image not favoured by their protective head-to-toe gear which some critics suggest has military connotations.

They have also previously come under fire for controversial crowd control tactics, such as ‘kettling' - confining a group of demonstrators to a small area, as a method of crowd control.

Then, after the 2009 G20 summit protests their practises were once again the focus of national scrutiny.

Newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson collapsed and died after an altercation initiated by a police officer, who has since been dismissed for gross misconduct. An inquest later found that Mr Tomlinson had been unlawfully killed.

Police from various Midland forces prepare to take a hit from anything

Chief Inspector Tony Lungrin, head of the planning tactical unit for Staffordshire Police, was keen to distance the current tactics the force deploys from those of its past.

He said: “The 2011 riots saw a shift towards cooperation. Human rights are now embedded in everything we do.

“We now look at communication first of all, all the officers are now trained to communicate with protesters or the people causing disorder and start off with that ‘low end’ facilitation and dialogue.

“If you are in a public disorder situation where you are telling people they can’t do things, they won’t respond to it as well as if you explain the reasons why can’t, followed by those behind what we expect of them.

“We are less dictatorial and more facilitative. We now fully understand that our behaviour quite clearly dictates what the behaviour of the crowd is going to be like.”

Sergeant John De-Hayes, a training manager for West Midlands Police said: “Training helps but it can’t cater for every situation.

“All we can do is give them the training blocks to work on, we give them basic tactics and when deployed operationally, you adapt those tactics to whatever is happening around you.

“Sometimes containment has to be used- there is a place for it but what we have to make sure is when they do, it has to be within the law, proportional and employed only for a specific purpose. Yes, we have to use force and we are trained to, but only to maintain the peace.”

Police from West Midlands, West Mercia, Staffordshire and Warwickshire stand side by side for training
Juliet tries on the helmet

Looking at recent events in the Black Country, such as EDL marches where tensions have been quickly de-escalated using these new practises, there is now a marked difference in the way police have managed local disorder.

This has led to praise from the public and local authorities.

Sergeant De-Hayes said: “In any public disorder we engage in, we start off as normal policing where officers are in their public order attire which is normal uniform. We don’t start off at that higher end.”

The extremes of that higher end, where petrol bombs and missiles might be a threat is where officers are then instructed to adorn their protective uniforms, which can take up to 20 minutes put on.

It is easy to see why having the protection instills a sense of confidence and safety in the officers.

However, movement and agility is severely compromised when wearing the full gear.

Despite being a heavy feature of the training course, petrol bombs are not a common theme in UK disorder.

However, Sergeant De-Hayes is no stranger to such an eventuality.

He said: “Having petrol bombs thrown at you, the adrenaline starts to rush and you have that concern - is my kit going to work? I experienced it a few years ago when we had that disorder in Birmingham. It's frightening. But you put your faith in the equipment, your faith in the training and you work through it.

"They might be used rarely now but we train our officers to prepare for the worst-case scenario."

As for me, I was happy to see the back of the heavy protective wear, which, after only half an hour and limited activity, had made me feel claustrophobic and exhausted.

Peeling away the sweaty layers of clothing, I realised I had a new-found respect for those officers who sometimes endure those conditions for long, gruelling shifts.

It is easy to see how those confusing and disorientating, high-pressure environments can sometimes cause the isolated mistakes that bring the wider force into disrepute.

Juliet Hounam

By Juliet Hounam
Video Journalist

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