SHOPPERS come running from a supermarket, eyes sore and finding it difficult to breath.
Panic sets in as people fear the worst.
Shopping trolleys are abandoned as staff and customers huddle in the car park, waiting and wondering what they have been exposed to.
With hundreds of people seeking treatment within the 60-yard exclusion zone and fears growing as a “major incident” is declared, there is a crack team of specialists that are called.
They are the Hazardous Area Response Team (HART).
From chemical leaks like the one that closed Sainsbury’s in Hedge End last September, and collapsed buildings to terror attacks, this multi-skilled unit is dispatched immediately to get treatment to those patients in the most perilous of situation.
No height is too tall or drop too steep for HART, who can go into the “hot zones” of major incidents which previously were far too dangerous for paramedics.
This week the 42-strong team celebrates three years of saving the lives of those who previously would have had to wait for vital treatment until after they had been pulled out of the “hot zone”.
Previously, paramedics were forced to stop at the edge of any area considered too hazardous by the fire and rescue services – a cause of great frustration to clinicians desperate to help.
But thanks to the establishment of the HART, specially trained paramedics are now able to work with other emergency services to get lifesaving treatment to patients wherever they may be.
The chemical leak from one of the fridges at Sainsbury’s last year one just one of the 680 incidents the team has responded to since April. Others include: l The road crash on the A31 in the New Forest last week, in which one motorcyclist died and another was seriously injured after colliding with a horse.
l The rescue of a couple who became trapped in a bog in the New Forest two weeks ago.
l The attempted rescue of Austin Clark, who tragically drowned in the freezing lake at Lakeside Country Park in Eastleigh in December.
HART teams were first established in response to the September 11 terror attacks in the US and the July 7 bombings in London in 2005.
Investigations into what happened in the immediate aftermath of those tragedies identified that the ambulance service was restricted in what it could do.
So the Government spent several million pounds to commission HARTs for each ambulance service, and three years ago South Central Ambulance Service (SCAS) launched its unit.
For the first time clinicians, who were trained and equipped, were able to go into areas alongside their emergency service colleagues, which were previously out of bounds, for the benefit of the patients.
David Findlay, HART manager, said: “I saw it as an opportunity for us to provide better care for patients in very difficult circumstances.
“This puts a clinician into these areas, to judge the best way to get the patient out, while providing them with the right clinical care – which, before, the other services could not do until they had removed the patient from the situation.
“The ambulance service provides great care but there was a gap and that needed fixing.
“We don’t do it in isolation, we are part of a team, working in partnership with the ambulance paramedics as well as the other emergency services.
“We are pushing the boundaries, asking questions all the time about what else we can do to benefit the patients.
“It has got limitations. It’s a small team of people but it does make a difference I believe.
“There is a better understanding of the threats we as a society are facing and while thankfully these do not occur too often, when they do, we have the capability to meet those challenges and provide the best possible chance for the patients.”
The team is made up of 40 paramedics and two ambulance technicians, who undergo four to five months of training to ensure they are prepared for any eventuality.
They are still paramedics at heart, but those who are selected for the team and pass the rigorous training have the added specialist skills that can get them to patients in dangerous environments in relative safety.
The unit is based in Eastleigh but covers the whole SCAS region, which goes as far as Oxford and Buckinghamshire.
They do not take patients to hospital, they are there to get treatment to a patient as quickly as possible and once the patient has been safely rescued, they will hand them over to the ambulance crew working alongside them.
Paul Haly, HART team leader and paramedic, said: “The ability to take pre-hospital care into locations where traditionally paramedic interventions would never have reached is both an enjoyable and challenging experience.
“The knowledge and increased awareness that I have gained in HART has enabled me to develop both personally and professionally, and helped me progress my career as a paramedic.”
The team has a fleet of different vehicles to suit every emergency.
These include two Incident Support Units which are packed full with supplies and kit to ensure those on the scene have everything they need.
They are also the only emergency service to have a Polaris, a small off-road six-wheeled vehicle, which emerges from a truck that can get the team to patients in rough terrain and transport them back safely.
It is of vital importance to the team who are often deployed to the New Forest where people have got stuck in mud in isolated locations because it means they can get to patients quicker, saving long and treacherous walks with heavy equipment.
From chemical suits like those seen in blockbuster movies to slick diving gear and breathing apparatus more familiar with firefighters, the team also have a uniform for each emergency to ensure their safety.
Each uniform poses its own difficulties when treating a patient – the chemical suits have thick gloves that can make injecting troublesome and the breathing apparatus is large and heavy.
But with their expert training, which is frequently refreshed, the team react as if it’s the norm – focused only on the patient in need.
Gemma Davis (above), one of the newest members of the HART, said: “Having to stand on the side and just watch while other emergency services go in is very frustrating, because you just want to get in there and do what you are trained to do and help the patient.
“I just wanted to have the extra skills to be able to go in and help patients, rather than waiting for them to be brought out.
“It’s great to be able to go in and do what we do best. It’s not for everybody, there are dangers but I love it.”
MY DAY WITH THE HART TEAM ON MY day stationed with the HART team I got a little taste of the type of work they do, both from the view of the paramedic and the patient.
While there we got a call out and the team instantly sprung into action and I quickly found myself hurtling down the M27 in one of the incident support units, with blue lights flashing and sirens sounding.
A plane due to land at Bournemouth airport reported problems with its undercarriage, so all emergency services were swiftly drafted in.
Fortunately, by the time we reached Rownhams services the plane had landed safely and the team were told to stand down, but it gave me a glimpse of what the team face on a daily basis.
One moment we were standing around chatting and then the next, the team were focused, in the zone and within seconds out of the door.
A truly slick and efficient operation and one that was quite impressive to watch.
Once back at base it was my turn to experience what it is like to be a patient and was strapped up on a stretcher and placed into a dark training tunnel by the team.
It was a little unnerving to be so helpless in the stretcher and put into such a confined space, but it is an experience that each member of the team goes through so they can understand what a patient goes through.
The tunnel is used to recreate the small spaces that patients get trapped in if a building collapses.
As they closed the lid on me I wasn't sure how I was going to react but with paramedic Andy Lloyd by my side throughout the exercise, he quickly put me at ease.
I truly hope that is the only time I find myself in that situation, but should I ever find myself in need of being rescued, I know I'll be in safe hands with the HART team.
SINCE April last year the team have responded to 680 emergencies.
These have included the chemical leak drama at Sainsbury's in Hedge End when hundreds of shoppers and staff were evacuated after a leakage from a fridge, in September.
More recently they were called into action to help with the accident on the A31, where one motorcyclist died and another was seriously injured after colliding with a horse.
A fortnight ago the Polaris was deployed after a couple became trapped in a bog in the New Forest as no other vehicle could reach them.
And in December the team were able to use their specialist water skills at Lakeside Country Park to help with the rescue attempt of Austin Clark who tragically drowned in the freezing lake.