I guess it’s almost every little boy’s dream (and some girls’ too, no doubt about it) to grow up to be a fire-fighter one day. So I asked our cheerful Retained Fire Service crew, or at least the 7 who I managed to catch at their weekly Tuesday evening meeting: what keeps you going in the fire service — is it the heroism and excitement you envisaged when you were little boys?
FireFighter David Habberjam was first off the mark to give the excitement component about 50% of the reason for joining the service, at least at the beginning. Drudgery, hard work, unexpected hours, physical fitness, constant training exercises — all necessarily fit into the rationale too though, especially in terms of perseverance, because this service is certainly a professional endeavour. I wanted to get into this question because the Fire Service is currently holding a recruitment campaign for more retained fire service personnel from within their own communities.
Oh, I’ve yearned to be able to apply to the Fire and Rescue Service since we first moved here nearly 30 years ago, but unfortunately I fell out at the very first requirement: you must live within 5 minutes of the fire station, so that the big pump can go screeching out of the sliding doors on Shilburn Road, with you inside it, in your regular, or perhaps light-weight protective gear, before 300 seconds have elapsed from the time Fire Control mobilises your pager. That’s tight, and Sparty Lea is just too far away.
Otherwise, there’s the matter of physical fitness, of adapting to a team, of enjoying professional comradery and learning new skills. But the Allendale crew does welcome enquiries and will do their best, Watch Manager Willie Huddleston tells me, to explain the requirements of the post. For example, there’s a 30 month probationary period before you’re fully trained. By the same token, Allendale is particularly blessed: the 12 person team is less anxious, you could say, though more trained members are always desirable, about needing recruits than teams in other communities. I think it was Crew Manager Joe Hislop who said, “We’re here because this is our home; we live here.” And David reminded me that FireFighter Matty Robson’s dad Ivan was in the fire service before him. That kind of personal and family commitment packs a strong punch to the solar plexus of a community’s emotions. With a third of the team in senior management positions, and several others having served for decades as well, you know this service represents a steadfast ethos to protect the Allendale area.
I didn’t really mean to tease Andrew Docchar, Crew Manager, about his appearance on a flashy rescue motorcycle a decade ago or more at the village hall, which seemed to me the height of boyhood dreams — he quickly replied that he’s in a differently responsible position now, but not before some further teasing emanated from the team. Michael Fairless, Crew Manager, shared in David’s comments about the community service the Allendale Fire & Rescue Service puts in, installing smoke detectors, for example, or assessing people’s homes for fire risk, or taking the pump out to local schools to the delight of the children, all free of charge. Some of those children will remember those visits, on a future recruitment drive, to be sure.
FireFighter Nigel Baynes drifted in towards the end of my gentle interrogation (I’d promised it would only be a 10 minute interlude at the start of the meeting, and I arrived early and left only 5 minutes into the meeting time, so think I stayed within the target), and I asked if he was always the last Firefighter to arrive at meetings. No, said Willie, not quite always, and there was a general sense of mirth around the friendly team. Everyone squeezed in close to participate in a photograph, but I had to leave before the other members of the crew arrived: Firefighters Neville Pringle, Aaron Hobday, James Birchall, and Graeme Gowland who is nearing the end of his probationary period. I think that’s the full team, of which 4 or 5 members make up a full complement on board the pump.
David showed me around the mobilisation room, with its neat rows of uniforms, and opened the doors to the big pump. Of course, the station is a bungalow, so no twirling down the fire pole for us. But I was intrigued to hear a loud humming noise, and to see that the pump was plugged into the mains. “There’s so much electrical gear on board,” David explained, “So it has to be fully charged at all times and ready to go.” I hope the crew remember to unplug the pump, better than I did with our ancient motorhome one day on our way out! The pump’s driver has one crucial responsibility: to get to the scene of the incident safely and timely. The driver is guided by the Crew Manager who sits in the front passenger seat monitoring the ultra-sophisticated satnav, and dealing with the radio communications from and back to Fire Control. Incidentally, Fire Control is staffed almost entirely by women, while the members of the fire crews are predominantly, but not exclusively, male. Behind the two front seats, four Firefighters sit on a forward-facing bench, their Breathing Apparatus kit tucked neatly behind each seat.
You never really know what sort of terrible incident you might be faced with, at the end of the road — it could be anywhere throughout Tynedale, of course, and I hesitated to ask about that side of the commitment, when the best outcome is not realised. “You do your very best,” was David’s thoughtful answer, “And with the best professional service, you know you’ve done everything possible in the circumstance. Even in a tragedy, you try to achieve the best possible result for everyone concerned.” And then you take that home with you, and it’s back to the training regimen, the weekly meetings at the Fire Station (now also called The Fun Station in a diversification attempt to pull in just a bit more funding from local meetings or children’s workshops), and the day-to-day work of the station, and probably your regular day-job, and wait for the next bleep on the pager, because you’re a professional retained FireFighter.
This diary entry goes out on the day of a scheduled ‘drill’, an exercise in fire-fighting and rescue skills for the members of the team, tonight scheduled for the old First School premises. If you should happen to be passing by at 7:30pm onwards, be sure not to get in the way, but at the same time, do spend a few moments giving quiet thanks for our Fire & Rescue Service, in training again to be able to deal with any emergency to which they’re summoned.