Meet team of volunteers supporting North Yorkshire community through trauma and major incidents

MIRT's Alex Sutcliffe, with Grace Lawes and Tim Townsend of the resilience and emergencies team ta North Yorkshire County Council.
MIRT's Alex Sutcliffe, with Grace Lawes and Tim Townsend of the resilience and emergencies team ta North Yorkshire County Council.

For nearing thirty years, North Yorkshire’s Major Incident Response team has supported people through life-changing or traumatic incidents. Laura Drysdale reports.

In the mobile phone of one of the many people that Alex Sutcliffe has supported through traumatic or life-changing incidents, her number is saved under the single word of ‘lifeline’. It encapsulates the strength of the work of the voluntary Major Incident Response Team (MIRT), which she has headed up since 2015. The North Yorkshire team provides a confidential support service to anyone who finds themselves caught up in an incident outside of “normal” life. Its trained volunteers offer emotional and practical support to help those in need face the reality of their experiences and cope with the present and future, often at a time when they are feeling vulnerable or out of control.

MIRT volunteers.

MIRT volunteers.

“There are times when people are very distressed and if it is caught early enough and they are allowed to express what they’re feeling, it may just well save them from spiralling into a worse place where they might need the assistance of their GP for prescription drugs or they might spiral into worse mental health and need the mental health support system,” Alex says.

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“I’m not saying that we fix people and keep them out of that system, but sometimes to allow them that opportunity to process their experience might just save them falling into serious mental ill health.”

The team offers assistance to both members of the public and professionals during the immediate and longer term impact of extraordinary events including suicide deaths, murder or manslaughter, serious car accidents and criminal harassment.

Personal stories

Like many of the 26 volunteers that currently make up MIRT, Alex, who volunteered with the group for 11 years before taking up her present role as manager, has a personal story that has inspired her to help others.

Her older brother Richard took his own life aged 15. Her family, she says, “mustered our way through as best we could”, but she recalls little in the way of support. “Whilst it never played on my mind, I was always acutely aware that when we were in trauma as a family, there was nobody there to offer us any support other than our own family and theirs was invaluable.

“It always stayed with me that actually we should be able to support people that are emotionally traumatised. We should be able to let people have conversations about those experiences...People do need to talk these things through and process what they’ve been through - and they need people to hear that. I just felt [with MIRT] that there was an opportunity for me to be able to make somebody’s experience easier than the one I had as a 14-year-old.”

Alex heard about MIRT, which sits within the Resilience and Emergencies Team at North Yorkshire County Council and is a jointly funded service with the City of York Council, after being handed a leaflet about volunteering whilst working at Hambleton local authority. “I was driven by not wanting people to be embarrassed about talking about something they had gone through and I just thought I can make a little bit of difference to somebody’s life if they’ll allow me in. That is hugely humbling that somebody will allow you into their world when they’re at their most vulnerable, their most exposed emotionally and they’re looking to you to offer that bit of support.”

Parnters

It is the same passion “to never walk away from anybody’s grief” that last year drove Alex to help set up a Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) group for North Yorkshire and York. It is one of several organisations to which MIRT can signpost people for additional support in the area, another being the Coroners’ Courts Support Service. The nationwide charity, whose trained volunteers help bereaved families and witnesses attending an inquest, has been running in North Yorkshire for about three-and-a-half-years and informs people about the inquest process as well as providing emotional support.

“There was one morning over here that I supported and there was seven inquests and each and every one was a suicide,” says Samantha Catt, the volunteer coordinator for the North of England. “I was the volunteer on duty that day so I supported and signposted [to other support services if needed] every single one of them - they all said thankyou... We see the impact of inquests emotionally and we try and make that as least stressful as we possibly can for people.”

If MIRT is working with a family who have experienced a death and part of their anxiety is over the inquest process, volunteers can introduce them to the Coroners’ Courts Support Service. “We see the value in it and with the people we work with, we hear the value of it,” says Alex, who grew up in Hull and has lived in North Yorkshire for 15 years. “It’s such a daunting process to go through. My parents went through an inquest and they never really got over it...and they were never briefed or supported or knew what to expect.”

MIRT works closely with partner organisations including Coroners’ Officers, North Yorkshire Police and local authorities who can introduce the team to an individual or family they think might benefit. In 2018, a total of 78 referrals were made to MIRT, including 46 related to suicide and seven to road traffic collisions. Whilst some lead to nothing, if people don’t feel they need support, others can mean individuals or whole groups or families are given assistance from the team whose commitment is that “when the worst happens, the least we will do is our very best”.

MIRT history

The team was formed in 1991, on the back of a Government report on the effectiveness of UK emergency services and local authorities in response to emergencies and disasters, following 1980s incidents including the Kegworth and Lockerbie air crashes, Bradford City fire and the Hillsborough disaster. It aimed to create a service available to support anyone caught up in or affected by such traumatic events.

Today MIRT volunteers, who undertake training every month, are also responsible for the managing of rest centres for people evacuated from their homes in major incidents such as fires, gas leaks, power outages and flooding. Their role is to keep people safe and warm, offer reassurance and refreshments and provide updates, as well as helping to get any medication, equipment, food and clothing people need. They also help people find alternative places to stay whilst outside their home and, for those who have no other options, can set up camp beds in the rest centre or place them in local B&Bs. “On the whole, I would say people are very calm and respectful and patient,” Alex says. “But depending on the severity of the incident, you can get people who can be very traumatised, very upset and very worried about what their property is going to be like when they go back to it. They can feel quite out of control.”

Last year, five requests were made to the team for rest centres by authorities and earlier this year, MIRT ran a centre when a fire broke out at Northallerton Tyre and Battery Company and people were evacuated from their homes to nearby Friarage Hospital.

Praise

But perhaps one of the biggest incidents it has dealt with is the Christmas 2015 flooding which saw York and parts of North Yorkshire submerged. “Because it happened so quickly, that really was quite chaotic to pull everything together, particularly as some volunteers were out of the area for Christmas,” Alex recalls. They had requests to run seven rest centres across the county, the largest in York, and were recognised for their efforts with an invite to a Queen’s Garden Party. “It was really, really busy. Everybody was working flat out. We had a very small number of volunteers that worked really long hours which is why I was delighted they got the invite.”

On the back of the floods, and the invaluable outpouring of support offered by the community and businesses, a Ready for Anything project launched in York, collating a database of registered volunteers that can be called upon to help in major incidents. Now run by the North Yorkshire Local Resilience Forum and covering the whole county, it has more than 320 people on its books and takes anyone aged 18 and over. “We want to acknowledge [community support], embrace it and say yes we can involve volunteers and they can be a genuine help to any kind of multi-agency response to an emergency incident,” says Tim Townsend, a resilience and emergencies officer with North Yorkshire County Council.

The pool of individuals, from across the entire county, complement the MIRT team by providing additional practical support including with clean up duties, sorting donations and moving equipment and supplies. Grace Lawes, a senior resilience and emergencies officer explains: “MIRT are a finite team but they are highly skilled and highly trained, whereas Ready for Anything - there’s a mass of volunteers who aren’t trained but there’s those extra pair of hands that we can call upon.”

For York and North Yorkshire local authorities, MIRT itself is a valuable extra too. Whilst others may turn to their own social care staff or call on the British Red Cross to deal with rest centres and major incidents, they, in the words of fellow senior resilience and emergencies officer Matt Robinson, have “trained, competent and experienced volunteers” on whom they can rely. The ongoing emotional support after an incident makes MIRT unique, Alex claims. “Whether it is a suicidal death, a trauma or a life-changing incident, I just want people to know that there’s people out there that care.”

Volunteer stories

Dariuz Budrewitz, who moved to the area from Poland 13 years ago, has volunteered with MIRT for over three years. “I was looking for a voluntary job to say thank you to the community of North Yorkshire for the very warm welcome for me and my family. It’s a very, very good service for the community.”

Fellow volunteer Denise Wilson, of Scarborough, joined the team in 1993. She says: “A lot of the work that we do is one to one.

“If you can make a little bit of difference to a person’s life then you are going to get satisfaction in terms of helping somebody to untangle the situation they are in and to make sense of the world they have been plunged into...It’s what you would hope anyone would give to you.”

Though some MIRT volunteers have professional skills including in social work and mental health, anyone who is a “practical, caring, good listener” can get involved.

Anyone interested in joining can find out more by emailing MIRT@northyorks.gov.uk