Volunteer firefighters are among the bravest and deservedly most respected members of our community. In honour of that, here are two items you really should take the time to see: A gripping, moving account of the Grenfell Tower disaster from the point of view of a fireman who went through hell there, and a video of his counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic. We salute them all!
I’m not sure if this is something that I should vocalise or whether or not it should be shared with the world but as I sit at home thinking about the other night at Grenfell Tower I feel like people might want to know how the incident went from the point of view of a firefighter who was sent inside, while the tower burned all around us and how after years of cuts to the service I work for, how I feel about what we do and how the past few years have been for us.
I’ve always been very proud of the job my colleagues and I do week in week out as part of the fire service. At times it’s hard, at others not so much but the uncertainty of what might happen is always there.
We are a funny bunch, we like to laugh, to play jokes on each other, sometimes we are silent and won’t tell you what we are thinking about.
We laugh off the good natured banter directed at us from outside the service and mostly manage to do the same with the insults we get as a public service, even when it’s not always easy to do so.
It is especially hard to think about those insults during times like this. When I think about all the occasions I’ve heard and seen on the news or social media where people are calling us lazy or greedy because we dared to show anger at the 1% pay rise we’ve had imposed year after year. While MPs sit in Westminster drinking and eating in a subsidised bars and restaurants while they make £100+ a hour all on the tax payers money, getting a 11% pay rise and increased pensions to go with it.
When people think we have some sort of golden plated, over generous pensions. Ignorant to the fact that we pay in over 12% of our wages into it every month. That’s £300/£400 a month, every month! That we are worse off now than we were 7 years ago.
And we weren’t well off then by any means.
Ah Yes some of you say.. but you’ve all got second jobs.
Well Yes! Some people do work second jobs on their rest days, but this isn’t good is it!
It can’t be…
Who wants to work a second job on days you should be resting and recovering or spending with loved ones.
They only do it so they can provide for their families.
And you know what! We will have to continue to do this extremely dangerous job until we are 60 years old! That is of course as long as they don’t sack us because the physical strains of the work took their toll on our bodies and we can’t physically go on meeting the fitness standards any longer. Or maybe they will decide to move our pension age again, robbing hard working men and women of tens of thousands of pounds they had planned for their retirement.
Can you imagine seeing all those images from that awful night but picture in them instead of containing lots of young fit firefighters able to recover quickly, ready to go again and again to save you, it’s full of 50-60 year old grey haired firefighters pushing their worn and broken bodies that have suffered through 40 years of service through the strains of the job to breaking point.
If you can imagine it that night might have been very very different.
I can’t help but think “if only those people really knew!” if only those people who make those decisions, those people who think we are money wasted because there are the days we have no shouts to attend. The days we might just be at the station or when we are going out to put up smoke alarms for people or familiarise ourselves with the local risks or talk to kids at local schools.
If only those people could experience the things we’ve seen and done on the days that aren’t that easy. So they can see first hand what we do to deal with these horrific incidents.
Not just turn up after it’s all done to have their photos taken with us giving out hollow praise so they look good in the news as they continue to cut our funding and working conditions.
So with all that in my mind and hopefully now in yours I thought I’d write my personal experience of what I faced at Grenfell Tower.
Some things I will miss out as they don’t need to be said, some I can’t say, other things I will simplify so hopefully everyone can understand them, I’m not looking for praise I just want to let you know we did all we could.
As always we were woken with a start, the lights came on and the automated tannoy voice started shouting our call signs. It never fails to set your heart racing. Getting dressed I looked at the clock, I’d only lay down less than a hour ago. Time to see what we’ve got this time..
Down the pole to the trucks and it’s here I’m handed the call slip make pumps plenty.. what! No..
That’s a big incident.
Wait…. I don’t know where this is.. it’s not on our ground.
We have to look it up and then we’re out the doors.
We arrived about 0120hrs but due to the way cars are parked in the streets and the fire engines that are arriving with us we couldn’t get closer than 4-5 streets away from the building. Other trucks were closer they would be setting up water ready for us.
We could see this was a bad one immediately. The sky was glowing. Leaving our truck we started quickly towards it. Picking up pace we are carrying our BA sets on our back, while making our way we are trying to read the conditions in front of us, trying to take in as much information as we could. How big is the tower, where is the fire, where is the fire going next, how’s it behaving, how many flats are internally affected, how many people are in there?
We mustered outside the entrance. Parts of the building were already starting to fall down on to the surrounding area.
As we entered the building the fire on the outside was raging from the top to the bottom.
Walking up to the bridgehead on the 3rd floor we were told to look at a floor plan that had been hastily drawn on a wall.
We stood looking at it waiting at entry control to be given instructions, my BA partner and I stood waiting with other firefighters waiting to see what information there was available. Then we received our brief… 23rd floor people stuck in their flat go!
23rd floor? I repeat back.. giving the flat number I received to the Watch manager.
She confirms. I turned and told my BA as the reality of how high we are going to try and go on a single cylinder of air.
Weighed down carrying 30kg+ of equipment not including our firekit and breathing apparatus (BA) we passed through entry control handing in our tallies and confirming our brief.
We made our way up a crowded stairwell struggling to make progress, at times unable to pass because of the amount of people on the stairs. The stairwells were full of other BA crews bringing people down all in various states and conditions.
The smoke grew thicker with each floor we went up. No proper floor numbers on the stairwells after about the 5th floor made it hard to know where you were. Someone before us had tried to write them on the wall with chinagraph pencil but this didn’t last long. The dirty smoke was covering the walls with a film of blackness.
Around the 9th floor we lost all visibility and the heat was rising. Still we continued up and up through the blackness. We reached what we believed to be the 19/20th floor but there was no way to tell. It was here where we found a couple trying to find their way out, panicking, choking, blinded by the thick toxic air.
A quick gauge check showed us that the amount of floors we’d climbed had taken its toll, we were getting low on air. There’s no way we could make it to the 23rd and back to the bridgehead.
The couple were shouting and screaming at us through the coughing, trying to tell us there were 5 more people on the floor above!
Now I had horrible decisions to make and a very short amount of time to make them.
In what I think would have been less than a minute these are all the things I had going through my head.
I will list a few of them for you.
All of which I needed to consider before making my decision:……..
•Now that we’ve stopped and lost our rhythm on the stairs would we have enough air to leave this couple and try to reach the next floor?
•Was the information we are getting from these people correct? After all they are frantically panicking as they choke and suffer from the heat.
•If we let them carry on down the stairs alone would they or could they find their own way out?
•If we went up another floor would we actually find the 5?
•If we found them what state would they be in? Could the two of us get that many out especially if one or more are unconscious?
•How would we decide who to take?
•Do we have enough air to make it back down to safety ourselves from where we are?
•Should I be considering asking my BA partner, a “new mother”, to risk even more than she already has…?
•Can I accept/live with the thought that saving two lives is better than taking the risk to go up and potentially saving no one?
Ahh!! Come on think…!
Am I doing enough?
Can I give more?
Am I forgetting any of my training….?
•Why haven’t we seen another crew for so long?
•Will another crew find them?
•Are we really where we think we are?
•The radios are playing up… have we missed a important message?
•Have all crews been pulled out?
•Is the structure still safe?
Come on make a decision… and make it quick these people are choking…….
Ok Ok Ok!
Come on!! Think!!
I do a double check… ask my partner…
Is it the right decision..?
I’m doubting myself,
Ahhh! there’s no time for this!
Come on get on with it…
Right! Make the call!
I try to radio down to entry control.
“Alpha Control Priority!”……
“Alpha Control Priority!”
Still No response….
Where are they… what’s going on?!?
“Alpha Control Priority!”
Did they answer… it’s hard to tell.. the signal is all broken. I think I can just about hear something.
“Alpha Control Priority!”
Alpha control responds…
“Go ahead with priority over”
Are they talking to me I can’t hear my call sign…
Pass the message
Alpha control.. Two casualties found approx 20th floor, crew now escorting them down, request another BA team be committed to reach flat on 23rd floor. Further traffic….
5 casualties are reported apparently trying to make their way out on the floor above. Over
Alpha control “Message received”
Were they talking to me it broke up again…
Ok we really need to get out.
Grab my arm.
Taking a casualty each we set off. Within two floors both of us had been pushed down one of the flight of the stairs by our casualties. They are screaming at us that they couldn’t breath.
We try to reassure them.
Stay with me!!
We are going to get you out!!.
Please stay with me!
Down and down we go… I hear a shout from behind me from my partner, the female casualty has become unconscious. My partner is now having to drag her down alone. I can’t help at this time.
Two floors later we find another crew making their way out. One of them is carrying a little girl. I hand off my casualty to the firefighter who has a free set of hands, please take him out I shout, we’ll be right behind you.
I turn to go but with that he hands me something I’d not seen initially.
I’m handed a firefighter’s helmet!
This can’t be good!!
Why does he have this?
Where is the firefighter it belongs to!
As I turn round and go back up one turn of the stairs I see him.
He’s missing his helmet but he’s with my BA partner.
He’s got no helmet and no breathing apparatus.
Are you ok? Where’s your BA set!?
He’s given it to a casualty.. he’s coughing as he tells us, he’s delirious from the heat and smoke.
Still he tries to help carry the casualty! Helping others is still his first thought.
I shout at him.. Get down those stairs, get down to the bridgehead!
I take the casualties arms my BA partner has her legs.
We start down again.. round and round we go, hear the noise of crews working hard around us. There are still crews going up the stairs past us.
My BA pre alarm starts going this off…. this means one thing.. my air is running low.. similar noises are all around me.
Turning a corner we see a white helmet, it’s a watch manager in the stairwell we’ve reach the bridgehead.
It’s moved again. It’s now up on the 5th floor.
My partner takes the firefighter with no BA in to the 5th floor lobby to administer Oxygen.
The watch manager takes the casualties legs from her.
Walking backwards down another 5 floors and finally I’m on the ground floor but I can’t stop yet. I hand the casualty over. Then I’m off back up those stairs to the 5th floor.
Reaching entry control, now finally I can shut my set down and I take my mask off. Hoping for a deep breath of clean air…
It’s not clean air in here, I suck in a lung full of light-ish smoke. It makes me cough and retch.
Still It’s clean enough to breathe I guess. It’s better than the air higher up.
With my tally collected I find my BA partner. She’s with the firefighter we found and she’s administering him Oxygen. We’re off. We take him down and out with us.
As we get outside we are desperate for a drink of water, collapsing on the grass by the leisure centre. Someone sees us and throws us some water I drink it straight down, its gone so fast it barely touches the thirst I have.
As I look up colleagues are all around us, tunics off, their t-shirts soaked through with sweat, no one really able to talk.
All of us sat there looking at the building we’ve just come out of. It’s worse now! The fire is everywhere and fierce!
It’s hard to comprehend we were just in there.
We see a man in a high window trapped in his flat, we can hear the radio traffic. They know he’s there but no one can get to him… but crews are working hard trying to help him.
He’s there for a long time disappearing then coming back.
Slowly we catch our breath, we service our BA sets new oxygen cylinders on them we are ready to go again.
Recovering I go to find more water. At a cordon a woman pleads with me… crying and pushing her phone at me she says she has her friend on the line.
Her and her baby are trapped on the 11th floor.
It throws me… I struggle to reply.. I look across at a police officer I point at him and tell her he will take her to the people who will take her friend’s information and pass it on to the crews inside.
Stay on the phone with her I say!
Tell her not to give up!
We are still coming.
We are still getting to people I promise.
No time to stop, don’t get distracted. I’ve got to get a drink and get back to it.
Time passes quickly, some people are given jobs while others have to wait to be tasked with going back inside.
Some time later, I couldn’t say how long, we are all grouped together waiting for news. A senior officer is telling us he knows we’ve already broken all the policies we have. He knows the risks we’ve taken but that’s not enough we are going to have to take more! There are still a lot more people who need us.
He says he’s going ask us to do things that would normally be unimaginable. To put our lives at risk even more than we already have.
Everyone is looking round at each other listening to this officer try to motivate us into action again. He didn’t need to though, we are ready for it! This is what we train for.
Those colleagues who a little while ago were collapsed and broken on the grass from their first entry are back up, ready, stood in full kit waiting for their orders to go in again.
Now lots of things happened during the time I was outside. Some people were rescued alive, some unfortunately weren’t. People jumped, a mother threw a baby from a floor high up, caught by a complete stranger’s arms just so she could get it away from the fire.
All this time hour after hour my colleagues were pushing themselves above and beyond what you’d think was humanly possible.
As the light broke and time passed we knew it had gone to make pumps 40, and that 20 relief trucks were ordered. So as the trucks with fresh crews arrived those of us that were there early on were starting to be swapped over. We were told to find our crews and go to the debrief but no one was wanting to leave each and every one willing to give more, but eventually we all had to leave the scene.
So 19 hours after starting our night shift the members of Red Watch made it back to the Fire Station.
Time to try and rest.. in 4 hours time we will be on duty again.
We hand over the appliance to the Blue Watch. Tell them what equipment we know to be missing.
I swapped out my dirty fire gear so I’m ready for 8pm, I might as well do it while I’m still covered in sweat and dirt.
I shower, but the smell of smoke won’t go away. I wash three times and give up.
I’m beyond tired but I can’t sleep.. there’s too much going on in my head.
I think I need a drink!
I go out to the local pub with colleagues. I order a shandy, I’m back on duty soon.
As we sit with our drinks we don’t really talk. Sitting in almost complete silence, each lost in thought trying to begin to process everything that’s happened. Yet we are aware of the people all around us laughing and joking with friends, enjoying their drinks in the sun. Oblivious to what we’ve seen, unaware of what we’ve been doing all night.
I’ve no appetite but I know I need to eat. We go to get some food but it’s hard to concentrate.
We go back to the fire station, there’s no time to get home. I find a bed in the dorm room and eventually manage 45 min sleep before I wake up. Wash my face, get dressed and I’m ready to report for roll call, ready to do it all again.
Now… this is only a small part of the things we saw and did on that night. Other stories will obviously come out but some won’t. Some will be kept by firefighters and the other emergency services hidden away deep down in their thoughts, never to pass in to words, never to be told to a living soul but always there, those emotional scars will forever be there.
After all that I want to ask you this.
When you see emergency services workers plastered on papers or on the news being slated by the mainstream media, or sometimes missing from a story or a incident you know we would have been at, being called lazy because we are seen trying to eat or have a coffee whilst on duty and your initial thought is any level of outrage
“what! they can’t do that! I’m paying their salary!”
“They should be doing something else!”
Stop! and Think!
Take a minute to consider what that person might have already seen or done that day or what they might see or do in 5 minutes from now.
When you see big incidents like this on the news, stop… take a moment think about the thousands of incidents that are attended every year by blue light services that don’t make the mainstream media either because they don’t sell papers or give the right message for the current political agenda of a particular party.
Maybe it is because they are only small or maybe because they are not considered news worthy enough.
Maybe they do make the news it’s because something went wrong and then it is reported so someone can be blamed. Reported on so some MP can say pubic services are in meltdown so they can sell off part or all of that public service to one of their multimillionaire friends or a private company they are on the board of, all so they can introduce privatisation and make cuts to try and make a profit out of saving lives.
Regardless of what they do, regardless of what the job is, regardless how big or small it is. We as first responders are still going to be there, we are sill going to go out day after day helping the people whose lives are at the lowest point imaginable. We are going to be there for you!
So If you see us out and about please show us your support, show us you’re thinking of us and appreciate us by giving us a smile or a wave and if at some point we ask for your support or go out on strike know it’s not because we want to it’s because when we say things like cuts are dangerous we are doing it for the right reasons, because ultimately it’s you we are looking out for, it’s the people we serve that unfortunately suffer from government cuts.
Finally if you can take a few moments out of your day to really consider the sacrifices the men and women of the emergency services are willing to make to protect you, your loved ones and the local communities we serve you will see that it’s not about money or fame we do it because we genuinely care about serving you.
I’m off to see my family and friends now. I might talk to them about it if I can, but then again I might not. I’m not sure they need to know what’s in my head just yet.
Maybe once I’ve made sense of it I will.
Please take care out there people, but if you can’t don’t worry too much…
We will be there looking out for you, all day everyday!
– Sign the petition for improved pay and conditions for firefighters across the country.