Author: Hanno Meier
Pictures: Hanno Meier

Training to the limit

Severe accidents rarely happen on inland waterways. When they do, the emergency services are faced with rather unusual questions. A catastrophic collision on the Rhine prompted the establishment of the MÜB (Mobile Übungsanlage Binnengewässer) inland water training facility in 2011. Built on a converted river tanker, it hosts rescue scenarios that push firefighters to their limits: A watery nightmare on deck and below.

The trainers call the entrance to the converted tanker’s hull a “manhole” – the opening is barely wide enough for a single firefighter to squeeze through wearing their breathing apparatus. Behind it is the “mouse cage,” a wire obstacle course that seems to go on forever. “It’s over 65 meters long,” explains Thierry Romilly, the captain of the floating training unit he lovingly calls “Regina Rheni”, Queen of the Rhine. It has been anchored in Mannheim for a few weeks now, standing tall against the striking skyline of Ludwigshafen’s chemical industry.

The course poses every single challenge a firefighter dreads when called aboard a ship. First, nearly 70 meters of crawling across constantly changing surfaces, with bulky obstacles and virtually no space to maneuver. The breathing apparatus has to be taken off and put back on constantly. All this in the complete darkness and unpleasant heat of the tanker’s interior. Their search for victims takes the firefighters through narrow corridors into the double hull of the ship. Firefighting operations are simulated in the vessel’s cabins and galleys, other scenarios take place in the engine room. “Once you’ve mastered this,” comments Marco Pfeuffer, “you know what you’re capable of.” But there’s more to come. A gas explosion on deck. A rescue mission in the bulk cargo compartment. Fixing leaks in the outer hull. Deploying marine booms. Securing freight containers suspended diagonally across the deck. Sealing leaking pipes on motorized tankers.

Ships and pushed convoys move more than 150 million tons of freight along the Rhine every year. The river is the region’s most important transport artery and connects all major conurbations and industrial centers. Thanks to a sophisticated radar system, the waterway is navigable around the clock and on 365 days a year – no matter the conditions. Nonetheless, accidents happen. In 2011, for example, the tanker barge Waldhof capsized with a full load of 2,400 tons of sulphuric acid. It floated downriver, bottom up, in the dark and collided with an oncoming tanker before running aground in shallower water. Several crew members went missing.

The disaster made it apparent that none of the emergency workers knew how to handle accidents involving an inland vessel, despite their good training. How do you access a ship that is upside down in the water? How do you find your bearings in the pitch dark inside a ship under water? How do you operate a ship’s hatches and bulkheads? With a whole host of unanswered questions and the discomfiting thought that not just freighters but passenger ships, carrying up to 400 people, travel the Rhine – without the obligation to carry lifeboats, unlike seagoing vessels – meant that something had to be done on both sides of the Rhine. This is how the Waldhof accident, which cost the lives of two people, led to the Franco-German collaboration “Mobile Übungsanlage Binnengewässer” (inland water mobile training facility) or MÜB. This former tanker barge, turned into a training ground for all conceivable rescue scenarios that may occur on an inland waterway, has become one of the toughest schools for firefighters.

The trainer and his company, Red Line Solutions, regularly organize two-day courses for emergency workers here which include extensive theoretical classes. Pfeuffer focuses on planning and implementing individual and special training programs for rescue forces. And the MÜB offers the perfect playground for this purpose, the only one of its kind in the world.

“After the first full day, many participants are already worn out,” explains Marco. Tobias, Kay, Nick, and Christian – four experienced firefighters – have only spent a few hours on the obstacle course so far. Their verdict: “Intense!” But the day isn’t over yet. Decked out in full firefighting gear – helmet, boots, breathing apparatus, the lot – the first of them goes overboard. “Many of the people who come here for training don’t know what their equipment is capable of,” comments Captain Romilly as he points at the man floating in the murky waters of the harbor. A firefighting suit keeps you buoyant for minutes, a little like a life vest. Swimming along the ship’s hull toward the rope ladder is the easiest part of the task.

Climbing up the ladder, carrying all your equipment and saturated with water, is where many fail. Clearly, when the participants speak of “borderline experiences” after two full days of training on the MÜB, they are not referring to the tanker’s geographical migration, with half the year spent on the French side of the Rhine and half on the German. Rather, they recall the small grafitti above the entrance to the obstacle course below deck. It depicts a little devil and the title of the famous AC/DC song, “Highway to Hell”. It made them laugh at first. Now, they understand.

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