Shaftesbury’s fire station crew has been very busy recently. They received a record number of callouts in July – a total of 65 shouts during the month. They’ve also received a lot of praise.
The town’s mayor, Piers Brown, described the firefighters as ‘heroes’. That was after the crew tackled a large mass of burning tyres at an auctioneer’s site, less than 75m from people’s homes. That blaze, on 12th July, belched a plume of black smoke that could be seen for miles around. Two days later, crew were called out to extinguish a major fire on a farm near Shaftesbury.
Watch Manager Richard Chave has 33 years experience in the Fire Service. He says that the crew was pleased to receive such public praise, but they don’t expect it. “To get this commendation from the mayor was really nice but it’s not what we do it for,” Richard said. “We feel that we have to work for the community. We’re there to help people. Putting out a heap of tyres may not be heroism. We just stopped the black smoke from going into the environment. It’s what we do.”
Alfred’s Keri Jones visited Shaftesbury fire station for the Monday evening training and met some new and longstanding members of the crew, including Station Commander Matt Scott. Matt has worked within the fire service for 18 years at various stations. He was touched by some of the comments made. “It’s certainly bolstering to us. It shows that we are part of the team that is our community and that they support us as much as we are there to protect them.”
Firefighter Jonathan Purssell joined the fire service four years ago, at the age of 47. “We often get cards put through the door. Or somebody will come up on a drill night and say ‘thanks very much for getting our car out of the ditch’, or ‘you helped my gran the other day’. It is a really nice thing to do. The station has its own Facebook page. Some of those photographs got 18,000 hits. That’s just astronomical, but it’s great to see,” Jonathan said.
Adam Collins is a relatively new recruit. He’s been a firefighter for two years and he’s also grateful for the recognition. “To hear that the community is really proud of how we have behaved is great news for us. It’s a big pat on the back,” Adam said.
Some Shaftesbury residents might not realise that our town’s fire station is not staffed around the clock. The crew are retained and that means, for most of the firefighters, this is a second or third job. “We are all part-time crew. When I am on a day off from my other job, I am at home. I am doing something like mowing the lawn or I could be out with the wife, doing any of those normal things. I just happen to live near enough to a fire station to make a difference to the community that we work in,” said Matt.
The crew promised to tell me more on how their staffing and recruitment works and how locals can help ensure future fire cover. But first, I wanted to understand what went through the minds of the fire crew who were first on the scene during that major blaze last month. The sight of the massive, burning mound of tyres and the thick black smoke would have terrified most people.
Matt says firefighters approach a blaze differently, because of their training. “To us it doesn’t matter too much if it’s 20 tonnes or 200 tonnes. We have to protect the community that surround us. The most important thing to us is to stop it spreading and to stop it affecting anything else – such as people’s homes, families or animals. We call upon the support of all of the other teams at the other stations. They are available to us,” Matt explained.
“There were stations from all over the county at that incident. The first thing we started to think about was ‘how many of them do we need?’ And ‘how many of US do we need?’ You know from your experience what resources you need to deal with it,” Matt said, adding, “That was Rich’s job on the night.”
So how did Rich deal with it? “I could see the smoke from the station so I knew what I would need,” Rich said. “My initial response was to do ‘a 360’ – a walk around to see what else could be affected and whether it could spread. When I knew it could be contained within the massive tyre pile, I realised that I needed foam. If you have foam, you need water. I called for two water bowsers, which are great big water tankers. I wasn’t sure where the closest hydrant was although we do have a bit of technology on our engine that pinpoints where the nearest is,” said Rich
“It was a long way away,” chipped in Adam. “For me, as a firefighter, Rich has got some big decisions to make. When we turn up, he is the incident commander. I am a bulk-standard firefighter, I look for direction from Rich. We ended up rolling out nine lengths of hose,” said Adam.
That’s a lot of hose! “Each one is 25m long and we went through a housing estate,” explained Rich. “My idea was to get all of the resources there before we started. It might sound strange that we didn’t start dripping water onto it but we would have run out within minutes,” Rich said.
“The water browsers were en route and the foam unit came up from Poole. As they pulled out of Poole fire station they could see the smoke from Shaftesbury. When they ‘rocked up’ we were ready for them and we had a big dam of water from the bowsers. It was like a big swimming pool of water. It went from black smoke to white smoke and, straight away, I knew it was going out and I had it in hand,” Rich said.
Fire crew deal with all sorts of incidents. “There is no limit to what the public are going to consider an emergency,” said Matt.
Adam has found the wide range of skills development and exercises he has been on to be fascinating. “ I’m trained in RTC’s [road traffic collisions]. I am first aid trained to help people with cardiac arrest. I have been to a swimming pool where the chlorine was too high. That was potentially a hazardous materials incident. I’ve been trained in working near water, even partially collapsed buildings. If somebody’s life, animal or livelihood could be in danger, we could get the call.”
Jonathan is a farmer, so he’s possibly more aware of risks posed by machinery or chemicals than most people. He’s also undertaken extensive training during his time with the Fire Service. “I basically studied for three years. Every firefighter does. Being a farmer, you come with a very practical outlook on life. Most farmers work by themselves and every time you do something you have to think ‘what happens if it goes wrong?’ You have an inbuilt safety net. Your own safety, and all of those around you, is paramount,” Jonathan said.
Jonathan says that there’s a great deal of experience within the fire crew. “Someone within the group will know how to do it. You have problem-solving going on. We have procedures that we have to follow for each type of incident, but no two incidents are the same,” Jonathan explained.
As Shaftesbury’s Fire Station on Christy’s Lane is usually unattended, crew are called in as required. “There’s no one in the building,” said Matt. “The systems we use are entirely automatic. Every single call goes through to the team at the Fire Control room in Devizes first. They will decide which station is nearest. That’s where the diversity comes in for our workforce. Every single person is doing something different. They could be at work. They could be at home. They could arrive here by mopeds, car, van, even by the dustcart. You will have to ‘flick the switch’ to become a firefighter from whatever you were doing before. You put down what you were doing and pick up a completely different tool and do a different job.”
Jonathan explained that the firefighters use an online computer system that allows them to highlight the times when they will be unavailable for call outs. “We can access it on our mobile phones and we can say that we need to be off for the next four hours. Sometimes people have regular jobs that they have to go to. It’s very flexible,” Jonathan said.
Matt says they’d like to recruit some more firefighters in Shaftesbury and people can work around their regular employment or life commitments. “The crew get paid a set fee to provide an opportunity for us to call them. It’s like anybody who works on call – if you’re an engineer covering the weekend, you’d expect to be rewarded. Then, every piece of work that they do, whether it’s engagement in local schools, going out and fitting smoke alarms into people’s homes, preventing rural fires in the current hot weather – anything that our crew is doing is paid at a set hourly rate. That enables us to recognise the commitment they have given and recompense them for the disturbance,” Matt said.
If you’re interested, you can apply online or call into the station on Monday nights and ask about getting involved. “Essentially there’s a two-week course. You could be working in a factory and then, in two weeks time, you could be running the fire engine. You need to go through a recruitment period first but essentially the training lasts two weeks,” said Rich. “After that we have on-the-job training, a bit like an NVQ. You will then get qualified pay, which is a little bit more than the development pay.”
There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding the role of a modern firefighter and a certain kids’ TV series isn’t helping, according to Matt. “Fireman Sam certainly has a lot to answer for,” he said, raising his eyebrows in disdain. “We are all firefighters. Our community still sees us as firemen. You don’t have to fit the mould you think you need to fit to join the fire service. There is plenty of scope for people from all sorts of backgrounds, with all sorts of skills. The skills of the people are more important than what you think you need to be a firefighter,” Matt said.
“If you have friends or relatives, neighbours or people you know who might be suitable, make that suggestion to them. If you know that you are too old to do it but you have nieces, nephews or grandchildren, tell them,” Matt said.
You do need to be a confident person but Matt says even if you’re worried about heights or have a fear of blood, you should talk to the fire crew. Training can sometimes help you get over those initial concerns. “There are crew members that didn’t like heights when they started their training,” Matt explained.
Adam was once scared of heights. He told Matt about his worries and says that he gained a lot of support from the entire crew. “It was fantastic. All the guys here got behind me. They helped me through it to the point where I can now comfortably go up the 13½ m ladder and I am completely fine with it. I have a healthy fear of heights but I’m not scared of them,” Adam said.
Rich confirmed that there is strong camaraderie between the members of Shaftesbury’s fire crew. “We are good friends. Somebody might say they need help moving an item at home and a couple of people will go and help,” Rich said.
And outside of work, the crew sometimes get together for challenges, such as racing up Gold Hill whilst carrying 25kg cheeses during the Food Festival. “My performance was one of the poorer ones,” laughed Matt. “Our strategy probably wasn’t very good. Perhaps our strategy for next year should be to train harder. And don’t wear loads of uniform,” he laughed.
We’d tackled some of the myths perpetuated by Fireman Sam but there was another firefighter cliché I wanted to ask about. Had any of the crew rescued a cat from a tree? Just one crewmember – Rich – has done it.
“I did it in Poole,” Rich offered. “I also helped a little boy up a tree at a village fete where people had set off balloons with their names on them. There were twenty red balloons at the top of this massive oak and this little chap climbed up there to get them. We pitched the ladder and got him down because his mum was a bit concerned. I went back up and got the balloons for him because there would probably have been more children up the tree after we’d left.”
If you want some variety in your life, join Shaftesbury’s fire crew. Within months you could be helping to save lives at car crashes or decontaminating chemical spills. And you probably won’t be retrieving tabbies from trees!
“Come and join us, be one of us,” said Rich, as I left the team and they continued with their Monday night training.