Being a firefighter…. I always say it’s what I do, not what I am, but it is a big part of my life. I have been doing it now for 29 years and I am institutionalised in a way. I like to think I still have a clear view of what’s important at work and how our job should be.
It’s a job I like and dislike at the same time. The good things are: the people I work with, firefighters have a camaraderie; helping and interacting with the public; it’s not an office based job; it has a physical side and is varied and can be exciting and demanding and ultimately rewarding; our union – the Fire Brigades Union (FBU).
The bad things are: the management and our employers and their attitude to us; the constant fight to get what firefighters deserve and work for; the constant fight to provide the best service that the public deserve and pay for.
Whilst a lot has changed in nearly 30 years, a lot has remained the same. You cannot get away from the fact that despite all new initiatives, new technologies and changes to procedures, we still, and always will, put the wet stuff on the hot stuff.
In 2014 we still enter burning buildings not being able to see anything, relying on touch and our training and each other to extinguish fires and reach and rescue anyone trapped by fire. It is still dangerous job and sometimes, thankfully rarely, some firefighters never come home from work.
We work shifts, two day duties followed by two night duties. We have a lot to fit in to our days equipment testing, training, visits to homes, schools, businesses, and on top of all this the fire call bells could ‘drop’ at any time and we respond to emergencies.
These emergencies are many and varied. Along with fires we attend road traffic collisions, any transport incident, any incident where people or animals are trapped, chemical and biological, nuclear and radiological(!) stuff, flooding, building collapses, generally anything of an emergency nature where people need help.
Some days and nights were are busy with fire calls and are in and out of the station, other days we are quiet. There is no way to predict this. Our fire stations are staffed 24/7 and we have four shifts of firefighters grouped together in a watch. We never leave the station unless on the fire engine so we have to shop, cook, eat, rest, train, wash at work and so spend a lot of time together.
We are historically based on the navy so our ‘mess’ table is the beating heart of the watch. This is where we meet and talk and bond, or not. We are close-knit and when this works well it is great but I have also worked on watches where there has been conflict. This is hard to deal with and there are firefighters that have been bullied.
It is a job where the union has a big influence. The way we work together lends itself to us being in a trade union. The union has also been a big part of my life as I knew straight away when I was a brand new firefighter that I wanted to see fairness at work and the FBU appeared to me to be the only people that valued us and fought for our rights and considered a fair workplace to be a better workplace.
I was one of the first women firefighters and as women we had to challenge so many things to survive. Some firefighters were not that progressive when it came to sexism. I was determined I was going to survive and thrive and this encouraged me to speak up.
I think I always had a political outlook on life and I this has stood me in good stead over my career. Men and women are different physically but either gender with good physical fitness is able to our job. The main part of your body you need to be firefighter is your brain. That’s the aspect of the job I enjoy most, solving problems, whether it be out on the ‘fire ground’ or a union issue. I like to think there is a solution to most problems.
One thing I like about firefighters is that they are straight talkers, and they also like that in others. Other firefighters may not agree with what you say, but if you speak your mind and are honest they will respect you for that. We do not like people who say one thing to your face and something else to a different audience.
One change that is not good is management wanting more and more from us, whilst making cut after cut. They also are into everything being recorded and so a lot of time is taken up filling out forms. This is what officers do mainly.
None of this form filling has ever helped us put out a single fire. As firefighters we are frustrated that whilst there has been a 20% reduction in front line firefighters there has been a massive increase in areas such as human resources.
There has also been a massive increase in pay differentials. Our chief officer and principle managers earn huge salaries. This has lead to them seeing themselves as a sort of aristocracy and us as the peasants. We rarely see them, as they don’t have the confidence to come to stations and open up a dialogue with us. They, of course, lament the ‘them and us’ divide, but it is of their own making.
It’s a time of great uncertainty at the moment – we are in the middle of strikes to defend our pensions, this government wants us to work longer, pay more and get less. We all fear the privatisation of the fire service because we know what that means: a much worse service for the public and much worse terms, conditions and pay for us. Of course someone, somewhere will be making money out of this.
Finally, I ask readers to support firefighters when we take industrial action, I can honestly say that all the people I have worked with over the years have always given 100% when helping people. Please support us when we need it.
You never know one day we might just save your, or one of your friend’s and family’s lives.