My understanding of what a firefighter’s day involves used to be largely based on watching Fireman Sam as a child.
From my recollection, Pontypandy’s ‘hero next door’, would sit around doing very little, waiting for a bell to ring, signalling that it was time to rush off and save the day.
However, a real firefighter’s life is not much of a reflection of Sam’s at all.
I arrived at the Garston fire station at around 10.30am, where I was greeted not by firefighters, but a cook, who was making four portions of poached eggs on toast.
She informed me that the firefighters had been called out and did not know how long they would be. Fortunately it turned out to be a false alarm and the crew returned just a few moments later.
Four firefighters came up the stairs to the mess deck where I was sat waiting for them, all jovial and pleased to be returning to a cooked breakfast.
Their joy would be short-lived as moments before they sat down to their food, the alarm rang again. This time I joined them in the fire truck, on their way to an unknown emergency.
As we neared the building from which the alarm had been raised, firefighter Harry Gilmour wound the window down ever so slightly.
“When we get a bit closer, we scan the skyline for smoke.” He told me. “I like to see if I can smell any as well. It just gives us an indication of what we might be getting ourselves in for.”
There was no smoke to be seen, nor smelled.
We arrived at a retirement home to find an old woman, who informed us that the alarm had been accidentally triggered and that there was nothing to worry about. The second false alarm of the day and all before breakfast.
“Burnt food accounts for about a lot of our call outs” says stand in firefighter Rob Wingar as we head towards a training facility in Watford after a final successful attempt at breakfast. “It’s not ideal to spend our time chasing burnt toast all day, but we have to go out because you never know what it could be. It’s just part of the job.”
At this point, my experience of the job of a firefighter had merely been gained from the eyes of a spectator. However, with the firefighting units in Hertfordshire doing two hours of training a day, I was soon given the chance to gain a better insight into the fearsome world of tackling a blaze.
A firefighter’s uniform carries an unfathomable weight to it, even before the 20kg oxygen canister and mask are strapped to their backs.
I felt more equipped for a trip to Mars than I did a controlled smoky room.
I followed Harry into the building filled with “disco smoke” as he described it. However, this was no disco. The first thing that hits is a complete sense of bewilderment and disorientation. One gets so accustomed to vision, that when it is removed, one cannot help but panic slightly.
Harry kept me assured, my hand constantly on his shoulder, as we performed a fake search through the building. It was clear he knew his way around. Yet, without my vision, I still felt uneasy and this was all without the searing heat of a house fire that the firefighters regularly find themselves among.
It is said that to truly appreciate another’s circumstances, one has to walk a mile in their shoes. Here I was, just twenty steps in a firefighter’s and I realised Fireman Sam had grossly played down the importance and bravery of these true heroes next door.
Following the training, we headed back for to the fire station, but our return was stifled by another alarm. The crew prepared themselves for the unknown once again.
We arrived at a care home facility to be confronted with a plate of burnt toast. It was always likely, yet the crew were prepared for all eventualities on their way over and did not once complain about being called out to save some over-grilled bread.
Yet it is not just fires that firefighters are required to deal with. In fact, call outs now only account for around 7-8 per cent of their daily duties. Fire trucks are loaded with the tools to deal with a plethora of different incidents and each firefighter is well-versed in how to deal with all eventualities.
They also perform fire safety checks and fit new alarms at homes, a service Watch Commander Peter Wilson is keen to advertise not least because it has significantly reduced the amount of people caught in house fires across the country and one they will gladly perform for anyone living in their area.
To sum up just one day in the life of a firefighter is impossible because no day is ever the same. Yet, be it a car crash, an out of control blaze, or an overly-crisp crumpet, the one common requirement of their tasks is to be prepared to put themselves in danger to save the lives of others and from my experience, that is something they do with a smile every day.
To arrange a home safety-check call Peter Wilson at Garston Fire Station on: 01923 672825.