Firefighters aren’t merely heroes who risk their lives by walking into burning buildings. To discover their true role in today’s society, Lynne Wallis spoke to three with very different remits.
Former soldier David Waterman is a local official for the Fire Brigades Union. and also station manager at Battersea fire station
I had few transferable skills after five years in the army, but I knew the discipline that had been instilled in me would be useful as a firefighter.
We do a lot of other work aside from putting out fires nowadays. There was one case where a drunk young woman had fallen onto the tracks at Clapham Junction and the wheel of the train had cut her leg off at the knee. We had to get the power off and remove her from the lines.
She didn’t know she had lost her leg, and it was pitiful to watch her repeatedly trying to stand. Her life had changed totally, in an instant. A firefighter had to put her leg into a bag, and he was shaking badly. Counselling is available, but we get through it in other ways, usually by talking afterwards.
"It was the most scared I’ve ever been.
When we extinguished one part,
another part would reignite"
The worst fire I attended was in a high-rise block in Wimbledon in 1998. It was so vast that the cameras filming the tennis panned to the fire. I was standing outside in BA [breathing apparatus] when there was an explosion and burning furniture began raining down on us. It was the most scared I’ve ever been. When we crawled inside and extinguished one part, another part would reignite. Eventually, it burned itself out.
Around ten per cent of us are trained in urban search-and-rescue, and I was called to Glasgow in 2003 to be part of the rescue following a factory explosion. Nine of us were flown by helicopter from London.
We crawled around in the rubble looking for bodies and survivors—we’re trained to spot “indicators of life” and work with specially trained dogs. Families were anxiously waiting for news, adding to the pressure. We worked 12-hour shifts over three days. The next day I went to football with my son and the normality felt weird. All of me had gone into that job—it was too great a transition.
The resources we have now are just about adequate to meet the risk, so further cuts will increase the threat to life. Unfortunately, the days when the fire-and-rescue service was well resourced are long gone.
Aftermath of a helicopter crash in Glasgow, 2013
Paula Smithers has been a control firefighter—an operator who takes emergency fire-and-rescue calls—for 30 years. She won a Chief Fire Officer Commendation Award in 2014 for her part in a fire rescue
I work two nine-hour days and then two 15-hour nights. It’s tiring, but I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I take around 30 calls per shift, including hoax calls—you can’t afford to disregard anything or take anything lightly. Our motto is: if in doubt, turn out.
I was awarded for a call I took from a distressed midwife whose house was ablaze after her dishwasher caught fire during the night. She was in the rear bedroom, her disabled husband in the front. Both of
the bedroom doors were open, so smoke was travelling, and she was worried about herfour Red Setters that were trapped in the conservatory.
"You can’t afford to disregard anything
or take anything lightly.
Our motto is: if in doubt, turn out"
I got her to go to the window and shout to her husband to shut his bedroom door and open a window. My biggest concern was that she would go down to rescue the dogs and put herself at risk. I got her to put bedding under the door to keep the smoke out of her bedroom. Her lights were all out, so she was disorientated and she couldn’t see much. But I managed to keep her with me all the time.
After a while the dogs went quiet, having succumbed to smoke inhalation. She was devastated, but she would have died if she had gone down there. I had to keep saying, “Don’t go down. They will be here very soon, just another few minutes more and they will be here. You’re doing very well, Marga.”
I could see the progress of the fire engine on the screen—I was full of adrenaline. Marga did everything I asked, and eventually I heard sirens and then the firefighters inhaling through their BA. Fifteen firefighters got them out and were brilliant.
Marga was very lucky to have had her mobile in her bedroom, as she’d never have made it downstairs to her landline in time. She was severely traumatised and devastated by the loss of her dogs, but glad to be alive.
RTAs (road-traffic accidents) can also be stressful. I took one where four young people had gone into a ditch and their car was filling up with water, but they were foreign and I couldn’t work out where they were, and they couldn’t be seen from the road.
They managed to tell me where they had been heading, and we eventually worked out their location. The water wasn’t the immediate threat—they had no air and would have suffocated.
I’m part of a critical-response team, and we work with traumatised crews. One guy I worked with had kept trauma bottled up for so long that when he started to cry he couldn’t stop. You have to read their expressions and know when to push it.
They’re all rufty-tufty firefighters, a bit macho, but they can hold a lot of anger and resentment after an incident. They might have had to give mouth-to-mouth to a child they knew wasn’t going to make it, but they are obliged to keep going until the ambulance arrives.
Any call when you can hear fear is stressful. You have to reassure them, no matter what you think their chances might be. You’ll be talking and they will come and go as they pass in and out of consciousness,
and after a quiet time it’s such a relief when you hear them talk again, or maybe just take a breath.
We need to keep them with us all the time to keep them alive, no matter what danger they are in.
Watch: Firefighting involves so much more than extinguishing flames
David Burn has been a firefighter in Cumbria for 22 years. He is trained in flood rescue, which is just as well given recent events in his region
You can’t recreate flood rescue authentically in training because water behaves differently when it’s in an open area—there aren’t any rocks or trees to slow it down in urban areas, so it gains pace rapidly.
Our fire station was under eight feet of water, but we managed to get the fire engines out onto the main street. The phones at the Cumbria control room were ringing off the hook. We weren’t prepared, with just
two dry suits between a crew of 11. We had to borrow row boats as no power boats were available.
I swam to work in a padded tunic and running pants because my fire kit had floated away.
"I was so cold afterwards someone had
to hold my cup so I could drink my tea,
as my hands were shaking badly"
We rescued people while fighting against a fast current. You have to be careful that manholes don’t lift up as you walk over them as you can get sucked under. You have to be careful of cars and railings too. We had to persuade people not to wade through the floods, not least because all the drains back up and there’s raw sewage everywhere.
We pitched our ladders into fast-flowing water to rescue people from their homes. I was crouched by one window holding a ladder for 20 minutes while colleagues rescued an elderly lady from a top window.
I was so cold afterwards someone had to hold my cup so I could drink my tea, as my hands were shaking badly. I was in the water for two hours—there were no “fresh” crews to take over, so we worked
13-hour shifts solidly. Cold impedes because it slows you down.
We rescued people from 50 flooded homes one day, in water up to our chins. It’s very frightening because the power has gone and people are in darkness and freezing cold temperatures, but some are still reluctant to come out. We pitched the ladder inside the boat and we had to coax them down, including an old man in his slippers. People were upset to leave possessions, so we gave them emotional support.
The public understand the other work we do, and they themselves are amazing. Some lost everything in those floods, but they didn’t complain. Some were heartbroken, and I had to take myself to a quiet place after seeing an elderly couple who had lost everything get very, very upset.
After the floods, I remained cold for days, but I recovered. We feel uncomfortable accepting thanks because it’s our job, and we aren’t glory hounds. It’s what firefighters do. There’s a more to our work these days than just putting out fires.