Oxfordshire firefighters don’t need to be superhuman

by Simon Hill, on-call firefighter, Faringdon Fire Station

When I drive through Oxfordshire in a fire engine, many a bystander, adult and child, gazes in awe, wondering how they could get into my dramatic shoes.   

I’m sure there are people who wish they could swap their existing careers for something more exciting. If only they knew, I work for a recruitment agency, specialising in IT half of the time.

Yes, it really is possible to have the best of both worlds, and that’s why I’ve decided to tell my story; to break some myths about what’s involved in becoming a firefighter and to encourage others to have a go.

When I’m doing the blue light stuff, it’s as an on-call firefighter. That’s the role Oxfordshire County Council’s Fire and Rescue Service is currently recruiting for in many locations.

On-call is different to full time, because rather than it being your main profession, you’re simply called when needed. And on your terms. Each of us negotiates a contract with the fire service to be available for emergency calls at times and hours that best work for us.

In my case, that’s evenings and weekends, which means my boss at the recruitment agency knows my firefighter duties aren’t likely to clash with his company’s needs. And, of course, he benefits from having a very well-trained fire warden and first aider in his team!

I’m based at Faringdon Fire Station, just a minute’s drive from my home. That’s important, because when you get an emergency call, you need to get to the station and on to the incident really quickly. I’ll likely be driving the fire engine, so the crew relies on me to get them moving.

I applied to be an on-call firefighter just under five years ago. The training was varied but, to shatter a myth, it wasn’t just about how physically strong you are. Strength comes in many forms too – including mental strength and an ability to communicate and be a team player – so never dissuade yourself from finding out more because you don’t think you’re superhuman!

They tested me to start with in dexterity, initiative, ladder climbing, lifting and wearing breathing apparatus. You can see, that’s not just physical attributes.

Indeed, communication skills are really important for the modern firefighter. One side of my role I enjoy is showing school children, Scouts and Girl Guides around the fire station.

They’re the next generation of firefighters. We want to inspire them while they’re young, particularly when someone can apply to join the service just before their eighteenth birthday.

It's not just about recruitment either. Most importantly, the youngsters get to better understand fire safety and risk, such as not leaving their mobile charging at night and being careful when cooking. They can then use this knowledge themselves and take it home to remind their parents. Fire prevention is extremely important.

I’ve attended over 450 emergencies since becoming an on-call firefighter. That includes house fires, people trapped in vehicles, animal rescues, open water incidents, and dealing with hazardous materials. In the vast majority of cases there were no injuries or fatalities but, occasionally, residents do finish up in hospital or worse.

We’re supported. We always complete detailed after-incident debriefs and make sure any crew member who has attended challenging incidents gets necessary help if required.

Firefighters look out for each other. I have a wife and three children. They’re one family. But then I have this amazing second family, the fire crew, with their incredible camaraderie, trust and support. Best of mates, bonded by the many shared experiences we’ve been through together in keeping residents safe.

Making a difference to local communities is what gave me the incentive to join the service. I’m Oxfordshire through and through and an Oxford Utd fan. My six year old daughter loves football and I take her to the games. My three year old twins have already decided they want to follow daddy’s footsteps and become firefighters. I’m not sure if that’s on-call or fulltime!

But that’s the beauty of it. Oxfordshire County Council’s Fire and Rescue Service gives you that flexibility. It’s a community fire service. It wants to attract residents to join from many different backgrounds. Different genders, ages, races, religions, sexual orientation. The ethos is that the diverse makeup of Oxfordshire’s population should be reflected in the fire crews that serve them.

You take many of the skills you learn beyond the fire service too. I used to get that queasy feeling when I went into a hospital. I’m sure many of you get it too. Now, having attended so many incidents and thanks to the brilliant training and support, I’m much more comfortable in such settings and now have advanced medical training.

Likewise, the communication skills I’ve learnt, I apply in everyday conversations and situations.

I hope by sharing my story and experiences, and challenging a few myths along the way, I’ve broken down some barriers and persuaded those of you who were in two minds about if you’d be welcomed into the fire service to give it a go.

You can find out more by visiting www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/oncallfirefighters or by emailing fire.recruitment@oxfordshire.gov.uk


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