Next time you see a man driving down the road in the middle of the night, just in his boxer shorts, don’t jump to conclusions. The stipulation for an on-call firefighter is that you have to live within four minutes drive of the fire station. Which means if it’s 3am when your beeper goes off, there is no time to get ready. You just have to go. The on-call firefighters at Kings Langley will turn up to the fire station in their boxer shorts or their pyjamas. It doesn’t matter, as once at the station they just put their fire kit over whatever they are wearing. But the newest recruit, Helen, struggles with the thought of arriving in her night clothes, so when she goes to bed she has jog bottoms and a jumper laid out on the floor. “It’s like a comedy sketch when you see someone getting out of bed and walking in to their clothes”.
“That wobbled my son. It didn’t wobble me.”
The day before the Grenfell Tower disaster, Helen accepted her position to start her training as an on-call firefighter. “That wobbled my son. It didn’t wobble me. I wasn’t expecting that reaction from him”. In reality though, as a member of the fire and rescue team, Helen and her crew have a tendency to attend more rescues than fires. “Like cats in trees’” I chip in. I think at this point Helen may have rolled her eyes. She tells me an anecdote. “Someone once said to me, ‘have you ever seen a dead cat up a tree?’ ‘No’. ‘Well exactly, that’s why we don’t rescue them. They get down’”. She laughs. The crew do carry out animal rescue though. “One of the guys I trained with was getting a horse out of a river the other week,” says Helen.
On-call firefighters aren’t volunteers, but they do have day jobs and they undertake their fire and rescue role in their spare time. Although to dedicate 90 hours per week to be on-call is not a small commitment. Helen has three children, and although two are working, they are still living at home. She also works as a Finance Manager. So I’m not quite sure how Helen fits everything in to her life. Firefighters carry out a number of roles. It’s not just about putting out fires. They visit residential homes and businesses to carry out fire safety checks. They visit schools and host educational visits for children at the fire station. They attend road accidents as they have the equipment to cut people out of vehicles. They help with domestic floods. They assist ambulance crew with gaining access to premises. (Ambulance crew aren’t allowed to break down doors). And they attend call outs from hotels, when the automatic fire alarm goes off. It’s normally someone smoking out of the window. Or apparently too much spray deodorant. Be warned next time you are in a hotel, as to how good you want to smell.
“It was absolutely physically and mentally exhausting.”
Both Helen’s age and gender make her quite unusual for an on-call firefighter. “I’m 46. It’s not normal for females,” laughs Helen. She was the only female on her training course and by the end of the 10 week course, she was the eldest. But it doesn’t matter what age or gender you are, as a firefighter you are all treated the same. In training she had to keep up with the twenty something males. She recounts the training as “brutal. I can’t describe it any other way. It was absolutely physically and mentally exhausting.” Out of 13 that started on the course, only seven finished. Helen was going through three or four t-shirts a day, because of the amount she was sweating, and she was drinking 500mll of fluid every half hour, “and still not going for a wee”. She lost nearly half a stone. But as a firefighter you must be able to cary all the equipment. “Hoses aren’t lightweight, nothing we use is lightweight. You have to be able to use it, you can’t be a hinderance.”
However saying that, as a woman, Helen has additional skills. As she is smaller than a lot of the men, she can fit through smaller spaces. During training she would race through the confined spaces course and be out the other side, whilst her bigger colleagues were struggling. When she was on duty one night she managed to squeeze through a window to get in to a house where a gentleman had fallen. He couldn’t get up. It saved breaking the door down. One of Helen’s colleagues, who has popped in to the office as I am interviewing her, chips in with his own interpretation of women. “Women are not so stupid”. Helen laughs and tells me about the time the crew were about to break down a door to gain access to premises and she said, “Did anyone actually check if the back door is open?” No. It was open. “It’s the little things,” she smiles.
After my interview with Helen I am flicking through my kids newspaper, First News, and I see an article about a cat that got stuck up a tree. A woman went to rescue the cat and got herself stuck up the tree. The fire brigade came to the rescue. Admittedly they were probably more concerned about the woman than the cat, but maybe cats getting stuck up trees isn’t an urban myth after all.
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