Fighting fires is a dangerous and stressful job at the best of times but when someone has to be prepared to drop everything and rush to an emergency at any time of the day or night, it is easy to imagine the effect it can have on that person’s life. LAWRENCE POOLE and CAMILLA GOODMAN have been chatting with some of Bucks’ firefighting heroes about their work
Alex Gasiorowski has been a retained firefighter at Great Missenden Fire Station for 11 years. As someone who is on call for 120 hours a week, finding time for that special someone can be tricky.
“My partner Kirsty is adorable – she’s a diamond. It can be hard on her. She wanted to do something on Valentine’s Day but I couldn’t because I was working.”
The amiable 31-year-old, who has been crew manager at the station for three years, combines that role with looking after a herd of 70 beef cattle.
“I work at Town End Farm and the gentleman who owns it has all but retired. I look after the livestock and do general maintenance.
“As I was raised here and have lived around here all my life, I’d get asked about joining up when I was out and about and people suggested I give it a go, so I did.
“A lot of people think we’re volunteers, but we’re professionals. I’m on a full contract with Bucks Fire and Rescue Service, I’m contracted to do 120 hours a week and I often do more.
“You have to live locally, ideally within three minutes of the fire station.
“I love it,” he adds. “I’ve had some really good jobs and met some fantastic people.
“There are so many skill sets in the team which we can draw on. We have a plumber and a handyman – these skills come in useful.”
There are 10 in the crew at Great Missenden, three of whom are new recruits.
“It is a community station, but it’s one of the Bucks stations so we can go all over. If you’d been here this time yesterday, you would have missed us as we were on a four or five crew job near Wycombe and on standby for three-and-half hours – you never know where it’s going to take you.”
Bucks Fire and Rescue Service is currently recruiting, so what would Alex say to anybody weighing up a new career?
“Come and talk to us. It’s a not a part-time job, it’s a massive commitment, which can break relationships. But it’s a very professional job, which is extremely rewarding.”
Because of his role, organising a social life can sometimes be tricky.
“You do have to be careful when you’re on duty. It takes a lot of planning for a night out as you can’t just be spontaneous.”
Whether nurturing a newborn calf, attending a nasty car accident or putting out a blazing forest fire, Alex’s commitment is something to be admired and as I leave the station – fighting the temptation to climb into the cab and play fireman myself – I feel reassured that we have people like him serving us so diligently.
Now 61, Paul took his first steps on the Bucks Fire and Rescue Service (BFRS) career ladder as a fresh-faced 18-year-old in April 1968.
The Amersham veteran is BFRS’s longest-serving firefighter and he smiles as he thinks about his lengthy career.
“It was a lot simpler back then. To check if I was fit enough, I had to carry another fireman, Harry Bennett, around the pump a couple of times!
“I was quite skinny so they wanted to make sure I was up to it.
“My first job was a factory fire at Rose and Co on Winchmore Hill – it was a chair-making factory. I’d just got my kit back and I had to go straight out on the job.
“You didn’t have the training beforehand like you do now days.”
A part-time firefighter, Paul, who lives nearby in Acres End, combines his role with another for the service, checking that fire hydrants across the region are working.
There are currently 13 crew members split across two watches and, more than four decades on, Paul tell me how times have changed during his 44 years.
“The biggest thing is modernisation. We’ve got all new equipment now and there’s a different style of training.
“There’s no pole to slide down [much to our female photographer’s chagrin!] because of health and safety. There were a few injuries: we used to play volleyball too.
“We used to have six-cylinder engines and now we’ve got these brand new Scanias – there’s loads of new rescue equipment too.”
When asked about his most memorable callout, he says: “The train crash at Seer Green [in 1981] was nasty. One train went into another on a snowy day, and three young boys died. It was very sad.”
How has he found making such a big commitment for so long?
“It’s about discipline. If you’re on call you can’t go down the pub to have a few beers, but if you’re a family man living nearby it can be a great profession. It’s not for young lads who want to go out clubbing all the time.
“I definitely recommend it to anyone considering joining the profession. The brigade is one of the best employers.
“There’s a great team here. All the boys here are fantastic and I still enjoy working with them.”
Now in his sixties, is he considering retirement yet?
“I know it’s got to come to an end some time – I can’t go on forever – but I’m still really enjoying it and I’d like to continue for a bit longer.”
MICK Clarke, 40, enjoys being a retained firefighter so much that there are only 18 hours in the week when he is not on call.
Mick, of Cameron Road, Chesham, moved to Chesham from Ireland eight years ago. He had been working as a full-time firefighter in Dublin.
Two years ago he noticed Chesham Fire Station was recruiting retained firefighters.
“I thought it was a voluntary fire service where you help out once a month – I didn’t realise what it was.”
Retained firefighters are asked to commit a minimum of 120 hours a week, when they are within five minutes of the station. However, Mick, a self-employed builder makes himself available for 150 hours.
“As you can imagine, it affects your home and social life. It’s a very big commitment. You need to have very understanding girlfriends or wives,” he says.
“I won’t lie – it’s a big strain on our relationship at times, but they do understand. They know we’re doing good.
“We don’t drink; you get a taste for non-alcoholic beer. I think the pub opposite probably sells the most Becks Blue in the whole of Chesham!”
Mick has his pager with him all the time.
“You live by your pager,” he says. “I could be called right now. I could be at home watching TV or playing a game or tucking into my dinner and within five minutes I could be up and ready to go into a burning building or to a car crash.”
When his pager goes off, Mick is usually at the station within three minutes and heading to the scene within four minutes.
Chesham is one of the busiest retained stations, dealing with about 250 to 300 calls a year.
Mick says: “We could go a week with nothing or I think the record was 18 shouts in one day. You just don’t know.”
He says he would encourage other people to join.
“I don’t want to paint the picture you have to give your life up – we still have lives. Come down on a Monday, watch the drill and speak to us.
“It’s not all heroics and running into burning buildings. It’s getting woken up at all hours and going out to God knows what.
“If you can commit the time, it’s probably one of the best things you’ll ever do.”
AS THE only woman in her team, Great Missenden firefighter Tina Jackson’s duties often extend beyond the usual calls of duty.
The 36-year-old mother of three laughs: “I can be their mother, their best mate, their colleague, but I love it. It’s a great job and I’d definitely recommend it to any other girl thinking about joining the profession.
“It is very demanding though, both physically and mentally, but also extremely rewarding.”
Tina, who lives on the High Street in the village, works for 54 hours a week in her role at the station. And not being one to shy away from high-pressure roles, she also has another job.
“I’ve been a firefighter for six years and I’ve also worked with South Central Ambulance as an emergency paramedic for the past 11 years. We’re based at Amersham and I do four shifts every six months.
“It’s great as it frees up your days, which is lovely when you’ve got a family.”
I ask how the male firefighters took to her when she started at Great Missenden.
“They were great. I think because of my paramedic background I had their respect straight away too.
“It’s a very varied job – you deal with everything from road traffic collisions to flat fires and barn fires – so there’s always something different.”
Tina also speaks to children in schools about the profession.
“They love it. When I go in and take my helmet off, they say ‘but you’re a woman’.
“I don’t think a lot of them realise women can be firefighters.”
● To find out more about joining the fire service, go to www.bucksfire.gov.uk/BucksFire/Recruitment/.