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There was a smashing of glass, then the petrol bomb just engulfed me

By Deborah McAleese

Published 04/05/2015

Deborah McAleese in training
Deborah McAleese in training

There was a sudden smash of glass, followed by the thick smell of petrol.

And then the flames engulfed me.

An uncomfortable heat snaked its way rapidly from my feet, along my legs and on to my back. All I could see was an angry tornado of yellow and orange flames imprisoning me.

Seconds later the flames were extinguished and I was left unmarked, thanks to the three stones of protective clothing I was dressed in.

While public order police officers often have just minutes to scramble into their kit as they sit in the back of a cramped Land Rover, it took two people a good 10 minutes to help me dress.

The uniform the officers wear consists of a layer of flame-retardant cotton clothing from neck to feet, blue overalls, heavy-duty plastic padding that covers every exposed area, a bullet-proof vest and military-style boots.

A flame-retardant balaclava is used to cover the head and face under a hard helmet, complete with visor.

The suit is heavy, restrictive and very warm.

It was a chilly 8C at Ballykinler Army base, where PSNI officers were undergoing multiple unit public order training last week. Officers from the Tactical Support Groups, through to neighbourhood units, train together annually ahead of the marching season.

Despite the cold weather, after just a few minutes dressed in that suit I began to feel uncomfortably hot.

"Two years ago when there was trouble, temperatures were reaching almost 30c in Belfast. Can you imagine what it would have been like for those officers on the front line? We were very concerned about dehydration," said Chief Superintendent Barbara Gray, one of the PSNI's public order commanders.

"We were bringing ice lollies up to the officers to try and get them cooled down."

Inside the Ballykinler base is a purpose-built village for PSNI training. Within the village, which has streets dotted with terraced houses and shops, true-to-life public order situations are simulated. It gives officers the chance to put into practice public order tactics in a controlled environment.

Along one street officers were forming a protective shield around a water cannon.

In another street I joined a number of officers 'under attack' from a 'rioter' throwing petrol bombs.

Even though I was expecting the attack and knew my clothing should protect me, I still felt slight panic as the bottle smashed at my feet and flames exploded around me.

I was then handed a heavy-duty riot shield that officers hold to protect themselves and their colleagues from bricks, bottles, swords, fireworks and petrol bombs.

It was bulky and cumbersome to hold.

I was ordered to hold the line as one of the trainers took on the role of an angry crowd member. He pushed my shield and shouted in my face. My arms felt like lead as I tried to hold him back.

I was then ordered to surge forward with the shield and then run backwards to the line. Within minutes my breathing was heavy and the visor of my helmet steamed up, making it difficult to see.

"Officers can be standing holding the line like that with those shields for eight, even 12 hours, and then back at it the next day. It is physically very demanding," Chief Superintendent Gray said.

She added: "The officers have to show great restraint. They can have someone pushing them and shouting in their faces for hours. I have heard the most horrific things shouted at officers, really vitriolic. I have seen them being spat at.

"It is incredibly difficult out there. The resilience and the tolerance that police officers show within Northern Ireland I think is testament to them."

Belfast Telegraph

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