A life on the ocean waves

5th August 2011 at 01:00
What motivates a man like English teacher Norman Ross to give up so much of his spare time to risk life and limb with the Red Cross's `swifties'?

It's the middle of the summer holidays, when most teachers are enjoying a well-earned rest. But first-aider Norman Ross is on duty with the British Red Cross at the Tall Ships Races in Ullapool, behind the wheel of an ambulance boat on Loch Broom.

The colourful houses of Ullapool look like Balamory in the distance, as the boat powers further and further away from the beach. One of the first tall ships to arrive has moored offshore and welcomed some pipers on board - the sound of "Scotland the Brave" drifts across the water.

Norman is an English teacher at Dornoch Academy and father of two-year-old Alasdair and four-year-old Leah. A few weeks ago he was on duty throughout the night at Rock Ness music festival where the Red Cross operates first- aid posts. This afternoon, thousands of visitors are milling up and down the seafront at Ullapool, waiting to greet the Tall Ships as they stop off on their way to Lerwick. Red Cross volunteers like Norman are on duty on the sea loch and on shore.

It looks like a pleasant enough way to spend an afternoon, patrolling and training on the loch in bright orange ambulance boats in the sunshine. But the weekend forecast is not good and once the revellers have a few drinks, the first aiders are likely to have more of a workload.

Norman could have been at home tonight, bathing the kids and enjoying a quiet evening in. Instead, he'll be here long after the sun's over the yardarm.

Norman joined the British Red Cross as a volunteer seven years ago, and is now a member of the Swift Water Rescue Team and a trainer in first aid.

The Duke of Edinburgh's Award is part of the curriculum for third year at Dornoch Academy and he teaches them basic life-saving skills in preparation for their overnight expedition. He is outgoing and funny - well equipped to hold teenagers' attention as he gives them information that could help them save a life. He also alerts them to potential dangers, encouraging them to keep themselves safe, whether they are on the hills or at a festival.

The 44-year-old teacher is also a member of Dornoch's independent inshore lifeboat crew, the East Sutherland Rescue Association, and gives the crew training in first aid. He spent the first part of his childhood in Africa, in what was then Rhodesia, where his father was a minister serving as a missionary for seven years. The family returned to Wester Ross when Norman was 13 and he continued his education at Gairloch High, returning later for his first teaching post.

He did his first-aid training in his mid-thirties, when he was a teacher at Gairloch High, and joined the Red Cross as a volunteer a few years later. He is now a trained driver and technician with the Swift Water Rescue Team on ambulance boats like this. These are fully kitted out with emergency equipment like defibrillators and have stern ramps which are lowered to bring casualties on board. The "swifties" crew wear crash helmets and all-in-one dry suits, which incorporate boots and tight rubber seals at the neck and wrists.

"My role with the Swift Water Rescue Team is that I drive one of the boats. It's a rigid hull boat, basically a flat-bottomed boat, and it's used for operating in shallow waters - inshore waters and also inland waters as well," says Norman, when he comes off the loch for his break.

"They are tooled up with engines that are basically jet ski engines, which means there are no propellers, so we can operate in really shallow water when we are searching for people when we are going inshore. Cockermouth, for instance, working in flooded streets."

Norman was one of the Red Cross team at the Cockermouth floods in Cumbria in 2009, when these boats helped in the operation to rescue over 200 people trapped in their homes.

"We were covering the bottom part of the Cockermouth River, because there were searches going on in the flooded properties up top. And in case anyone got swept away, we were there to jump in and get the boats out for them.

"I was walking past a woman's house and she came out and thanked me. She's lost everything - her home, all of that is gone - and she is thanking me. That was really unbelievable - what people have to go through," he says.

Working alongside Norman on the boat today is Ian Rideout, operations director for the British Red Cross in northern Scotland. It was his idea to start up the Swift Water Rescue Team, following the floods at Elgin in Moray.

"We've been doing this now with the boats for the last five years and have got to the stage where we are probably one of the more experienced flood response teams in the UK," says Ian, who taught in a London comprehensive at the start of his working life.

The Red Cross is a regular presence providing rescue and safety cover at the Tall Ships Races, when the event visits UK ports. "We are really there to provide a boat-based medical facility, because we can treat people on the boats. We can resuscitate them on the boats and we do," says Ian.

This team responds to inland water-based incidents, searches for missing people and has attended every flood incident in the UK since 2007.

Volunteers like Norman Ross enjoy this work with the Red Cross and appreciate on-going training that gives them confidence in their skills to help people who are hurt or in trouble.

"I think the capacity to be able to help when people are in need is what sets us apart. To be able to go up and say: `Look, I can do this, I can do that. What can I do for you?' And I couldn't do that before I joined the Red Cross," he says. But it's also an unpredictable role: "You can have four hours of boredom and then 10 minutes of sheer terror."

Another Highland teacher is on duty this afternoon, at the helm of the second of three ambulance boats on the water. Vivian Bailey is a supply teacher who has been teaching at Stromness Academy in Orkney for the past six months.

Vivian is a member of the RNLI lifeboat crew at Loch Ness and joined the "swifties" just a few weeks ago. She is also a volunteer education officer with the RNLI and the station's Duke of Edinburgh's Award co- ordinator.

"I think it's important to put something into the community. Also, I have skills that are useful to the RNLI and the Red Cross, and it's fun," says Vivian, who is currently on the look-out for her next teaching job.

She is also a Community First Responder, part of a volunteer group supporting the Scottish Ambulance Service.

"It's very hard to put ambulances in place to reach some of the out-of- the-way rural communities. So, in quite a lot of communities round here, there are Community First Responders," she says. "We get called up by the ambulance service to go out and basically hold the fort until an ambulance can arrive."

Up on duty on the quayside are two Red Cross volunteers from sixth year at Millburn Academy in Inverness - Andrew Logan, 16, and Lewis Macleod, 17.

"We do first aid and whatever we're told," says Lewis.

He volunteered with the Red Cross as part of his Duke of Edinburgh's Award. Then, after he and Andrew volunteered as part of their Boys' Brigade Queen's badge, they decided to make a permanent commitment to volunteering.

"It's really good and you make a lot of new friends as well," says Andrew. "I don't know what I am going to do when I leave school, but I will certainly keep on volunteering with the Red Cross."

As well as encouraging pupils to volunteer with the Red Cross, schools like Dornoch Academy hold fundraising events, where youngsters have raised thousands of pounds for the charity. Norman Ross is proud that his school, with just 250 pupils, has contributed so much.

He enjoys coming out on days like this, but he is also out in the depths of Highland winter.

"I absolutely love it. This and teaching are the same things, because teaching is about helping other people," he says.

"Really, at the end of the day, that's what it comes down to. It's about putting yourself in a place where you're helping young kids. They're superb - young kids are fantastic," he says, with characteristic enthusiasm.

The Red Cross celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. It is an international humanitarian organisation with 186 national societies. Nearly a third of the charity's volunteers in this country are under 26, one of the highest ratios of young volunteers in any UK organisation.

"We have seen some huge successes with 15 and 16-year-olds who are a bit purposeless and come to us," says Ian Rideout, operations director of the British Red Cross in northern Scotland. "We have worked with them, given them purpose, and we train them and give them leadership skills, and they've gone on to do great things."

The charity has also managed to make first aid a greater priority in education. "We campaigned with the Government to get first aid on the curriculum," he says, "and here, in northern Scotland, Plockton High was the first school in the country to deliver it."

The charity's ethos reflects some of the key principles of Curriculum for Excellence and provides lesson plans and continuing professional development for teachers.

"We're now delivering first aid in most schools and we deliver humanitarian education in schools. We encourage teachers to learn about international humanitarian law and to teach global citizenship and humanitarian education to their pupils," says Ian.

"We are trying to save lives, we're trying to change lives and we want to create a world in which people in need get the help they need in a crisis. That is our mission.

"We are there to make a difference to the lives of vulnerable people and we will find every which way to do that.

"And if we see a niche where nobody is and it can save someone's life or change their life for the better, then we will occupy that space and we will make a difference."


Photography by Simon Price


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