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The life of Britain’s firefighters: ‘My helmet melted around my head’

When a firefighter’s breathing apparatus gets low on air, it begins to whistle. “But by the time it whistles, you’ve only got a minute or so. If you’re seven minutes deep into the building, what are you going to do?” asks Lucy Masoud, a firefighter at Chelsea fire station in London. “You’re constantly looking at your gauge. You’re thinking about putting out the fire, you’re thinking about things around you: is the building structurally safe?”

We are sitting in the north London office of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), and beneath the table her feet have begun to stamp. “’Cause you can’t really see anything. You’re stamping on the floor making sure it’s safe, that you’re not going to fall through, making sure there’s nothing above your head. How hot is it? Are there cylinders that might explode? You might have been given instructions: there’s a person in the third room on the fourth floor. Have I got enough air? Am I going to have to turn back?”

Masoud, 39, is imagining herself in a burning building – she has been a firefighter for 10 years, so there are plenty of memories to choose from – in order to pick her way through her decision-making processes. These private reckonings are usually kept from view of the public, but the tragedy at Grenfell Tower has thrown a light on to the job of the firefighter, and the life-and-death decisions they must make in the heat of the moment.

Maybe Masoud is reliving her first experience of a flashover, three years into the job, when she was called to a shed only to find after entering that the shed “went on and on and on. We are walking, walking. It’s getting really, really hot. We can see a little glow at the end.” Believing that it was a small fire, Masoud and her colleague poured on water. “And, vroom!” She throws up her hands. “It became a room on fire. We could hear our crew manager screaming, ‘Get out! Get out!’ As I reached the door, I could feel my legs going.” Outside, someone shouted at her to grab the ceiling hook to smash a window and ventilate. “It’s no heavier than a broom handle. But I couldn’t even pick it up. It was only afterwards that I realised that my helmet had melted around my head.”

For civilians, the experience of firefighters can be hard to imagine. But what does it mean to be one today after the Grenfell Tower fire, which Masoud’s Chelsea colleagues from Red Watch attended, and with the service adapting to cuts nationwide – 73 stations closed across the UK between March 2010 and March 2016, and the number of firefighters has dropped by 19%. What do firefighters do? Are the greatest challenges the fire itself, the sooting that sticks to hands no matter how many times they’re washed, the radios that are not always reliable – or a horrific memories that can’t be laid aside?

At Wallasey fire station in Wirral, Richie Magee, 46, has been a firefighter for 26 years. It was the only job he wanted, and he joined as soon as he was old enough. But he has never known the station so busy. In the last few weeks, he has been to “house fires, warehouse fires, fires in scrapyards, traffic accidents, people locked out of their houses, people locked in their houses, kids locked in cars, grass fires …” (To anyone wondering, he hasn’t rescued a cat from a tree in 10 years.)

Magee loves his job. But tension has crept in. Funding cuts have not lessened his passion, “but they have made the job more difficult”.

There are rules to govern the way in which firefighters approach fire. They must never enter a burning building alone, and, once out, may only return for a short task. They must have water. And by convention, they require two crews – one to search the building and one to extinguish the fire. But around the country, fire engines are being decommissioned. There were 42 in Merseyside in 2010; by 2020 there will be 25. The second crew can take time to get there. Magee often arrives at a fire without “enough people to put those procedures in place. You have to wait for the second fire engine. The second fire engine could be five minutes away. In five minutes, a fire can go from being not so bad to the whole house being destroyed.”

So what should he and his colleagues do? Should they enter the building or wait for help? “That’s where we have to make the moral decision,” he says. “We shouldn’t really be going in there, but we have to go in because there are parents standing outside telling me their children are trapped upstairs.”

‘I always want to go out on the fire engine. I wait for bells to go off.’ Photograph: Jac Depczyk/Getty Images

This is “rapid deployment”, which Merseyside fire service’s training literature describes as being permitted only if it is immediately clear that “persons are at great risk” … and are either “within view or known to be within a short distance” of the entry point. The procedure should be a rarity. But, for Magee, it is becoming all too common. Indeed, Merseyside fire service’s own statistics show a 90% increase in rapid deployment between 2012/13 and 2016/17. An official notes that this “could be due to the reduction of appliances from 37 to 28 in September 2013”.

“Although it’s a dangerous job,” Magee says, “we’re not meant to put ourselves in a position of danger. But you have to, increasingly. You’ve got to take that little step further. I’m thinking: ‘If I don’t take that next step, someone could lose their life.’”

Inevitably, when such losses occur, they cause lasting anxiety. “Where people have died, I can piece every situation back to where they are and what I did, and whether I could have done something that would have improved the situation,” says Steve McGreavy, a crew manager in Patchway, near Bristol. He does it – even years afterwards – in the hope that one day the pieces will make a picture that makes better sense. But they never do.

Ten years ago, he says, “my team member and I made our way into a building, but we missed a doorway. Because of the conditions in there …” He falters as if thick smoke still hangs over the memory. “We missed the first room. As we were working, the conditions improved and I then saw the room and went back to the room and found that there was somebody in the … erm … in the room.”

The room is inescapable for McGreavy. Part of him seems to still be trapped in there. “It was, unfortunately, too late,” he says, with the economy that firefighters employ to cope with what they see.

McGreavy is 37 and, like Magee, always wanted to be a firefighter. He had uncles in the brigade. But so far he has not inspired his children. “I think they have seen what stresses it brings to life, and I think they’ve decided they can do without those stresses,” he says. When his shift ends, and he showers, he still sees the black on his hands, can still smell the smoke. “Whether that’s actual smell or a mental smell, I don’t know.”

McGreavy works two day shifts followed by two night shifts, followed by three days’ rest, but his time off can be tense. “My missus says it takes a couple of days for me to change back to who I actually am. I think I go home the same person, but when she says: ‘Ah, that’s it! You’re back to normal now,’ a couple of days after I finish my shifts, I do see that I have not always been as understanding as I could have been at home.” By then it’s nearly time to go back to work.

“The role of the firefighter has broadened massively,” says Glynn Luznyj, director at Staffordshire fire service. That’s like an assistant chief officer, but in Staffordshire, he says, they prefer their jobs to be more businesslike, less military-style. When Luznyj became a firefighter 21 years ago, his Newcastle station received about 3,000 fire calls a year. Now Staffordshire’s 33 stations receive only 8,000 between them. This is in line with a nationwide reduction in incidents attended, which has dropped from a peak of one million in England in 2003/4 to 529,000 in 2015/16. So why does Magee find life so much busier? “Ah, but busy doing what?” Luznyj asks.

The day begins with a parade. Equipment is checked. There’s the gym to visit, a lecture or training session to attend – how to deal with a sarin attack or flood situations or what Luznyj calls “the new and emerging threat of waste fires”. After lunch, the emphasis switches to the community. Familiarisation exercises take place at high-risk buildings: shopping malls, hospitals, underground stations, tunnels or docks. Firefighters visit residents, fit smoke detectors – and look out for the early signs of dementia.

Some services see firefighters attending cardiac arrests. Photograph: Ashley Cooper/Getty Images

It sounds a long way from firefighting, but in Staffordshire, Manchester and Gloucestershire, home safety visits target older people and “we might have a conversation about their health”, Luznyj says. His firefighters are “trained to spot the first signs of Alzheimer’s, social isolation, alcohol problems – even individuals who have financial difficulties”. In Gloucestershire, firefighters perform eye tests and “signpost” those who fail to an optician.

“We used to shut ourselves away in our fire stations, close the red doors, and wait for that 999 call,” says Stewart Edgar, Gloucestershire’s chief fire officer. But now his service is embracing “a wider public-protection role”. Elderly people, who can no longer live independently, can now have a care button linked to the fire service, and a firefighter responds if they fall or need help. In Staffordshire, if firefighters notice hazards, they fix them, Luznyj says. Such as? “Nailing down the carpet,” he says. “The fire service is privileged. People trust us and let us into their homes. If we can rectify issues broader than fire, we will.” And, of course, all the while the station bells might ring, the lights come on, for a “shout”.

And the shouts might not be fires or road accidents nor even, as McGreavy sometimes finds in Avon, horses that need to be pulled from ditches. On Merseyside, Magee is “dealing with a lot of grief”. His service is one of 32 in a pilot that sees firefighters attending cardiac arrests, partly inspired by the role of the fire department in Seattle’s much-admired Medic One scheme. “If anyone within a 10-minute radius of Wallasey fire station suffers a heart attack, we turn out,” he says.

“[On] Boxing night last year, I had to go into a house. Young family downstairs. Grandma, who was only in her late 50s, had gone upstairs not feeling well. Someone had checked on her, she’d had a heart attack. And we’re working on her upstairs while the family are celebrating Christmas downstairs, but now they’re all devastated, and these are things you get to see.”

The fire engine is usually first on the scene. “You generally have a relative standing over you saying: where’s the paramedic? What are you doing here? We’re actually praying for the medic to turn up as much as the people who are suffering in the incident are.” Between March and December 2016, Magee’s station attended 29 victims of a heart attack, and resuscitated only two. “I feel quite upset,” he says, “because we’re not saving anyone.” (The trial is generally considered a success: statistics are better in nearby Southport, where 59 people were attended in the same period, and 11 resuscitated.)

It sounds obvious but what firefighters really want is to save lives. And yet increasingly they feel they are being put in situations that inhibit their chances of doing so. Magee has been trained to treat heart attacks – but he is not a paramedic. Brendan Stutt, a crew manager at Livingston fire station, turns out to three or four cardiac arrests a month, and knows of firefighters who have been called to stabbings and attempted suicides.

Yet despite this broadening role, the fire service is still dogged by a reputation for laziness or inefficiency. Even Stutt’s mates like to joke: “Busy night? Paying you to sleep again?” At Wallasey, Magee works 24-hour self-rostering shifts. Between 1am and 6am he and his colleagues can rest – and he chuckles at this – “on a horizontal resting platform”. Even allowing for the fact that the language of fire services can be arcane – water, for instance, is “fire-extinguishing media” – it seems extreme to remove the word “bed” from the lexicon to pre-empt charges of shirking.

Of course, the life of a firefighter is built on perennial expectancy; even while busy, mentally they are waiting. “I always want to go out on the fire engine. I wait for bells to go off. I wait for the turnout system. Can’t get to the printer quick enough to see what it is,” Stutt says. The job is explosive. Moments of intense labour punctuate the hours of station admin. Time spent with fire does not pass like office time. “It’s a two-hour gym session in 15 minutes,” Magee says.

For the public, the intensity of heat can be hard to comprehend. “The only way I can describe it, if you have ever played a Call of Duty or Medal of Honour game, you’ve got a little life disc in the corner,” Masoud says. “And as you’re getting shot, the life goes down and down and when it goes all the way round, you’re dead. Sometimes you’re playing and someone shoots you a lot and it goes really quickly. That’s what it’s like being in there. You’re in there, you’re fully fit and you’ve got your full life, then it goes really hot and it’s just drrdrrdrrdrr.”

In the aftermath of Grenfell Tower, Edgar says, the fire service finds itself in “an unfortunate position” of receiving plaudits for its service, but in response to the most horrific tragedy. Certainly, as the job becomes ever more tightly rooted into its communities, this should be a time when firefighters feel valued. But one problem is holding most back.

“Morale,” says Kate Scott, a control operator and FBU representative for Dorset and Wiltshire. “There always seems to be something to fight for.” For Stutt in Livingston, this might be the quality of the radios: “You’re 20ft into the hospital and you can’t communicate with the people outside.” For others, including Scott, it might be changes to crewing numbers: like McGreavy, she is going down from a five to a four-person crew. Then there are the station closures, and loss of personnel. And for everyone, it is the pay cap. The FBU believes that the average firefighting salary of £29,638 amounts to a real-terms cut of 6.4% from 2010. This might help to explain why one UK firefighter, interviewed on condition of anonymity, says that most firefighters have second jobs, as taxi drivers, fitness instructors, plumbers, electricians.

“A lot more people are disillusioned with the service,” McGreavy says. He planned to retire at 50, but now the government wants firefighters to work until 60. “When I first joined it was unheard of for anybody to leave of their own free will … Now people are thinking they can do better elsewhere. They are handing in their notice and finding other employment.”

“We’re angry,” Masoud says. She has seen her colleagues physically and psychologically devastated by the fire at Grenfell Tower. “We’re not just lumps of muscle that go into fires and put them out.”