Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Flaming Nuisance...

During my time working on the ships I attended a comprehensive fire course. There are no firemen to call on a ship, and you can't just fill the thing with water, so they take the fire training very seriously. You join me half-way through, about to experience the real thing...

The best part of the course though, was when we spent two days at a fire station, going out with the guys on the fire trucks and experiencing the whole fire fighting job for real. Fan-bloomin’-tastic, as the man said. Fire stations cannot take groups of passengers, so we were split up, and I was sent alone to join a brigade down the coast at a fire station in Middlesbrough.

I had heard stories about what to expect from a couple of days on Blue Watch. It was a busy, city centre fire service, so Nick, the lead fireman who was to look after me, gave me to expect that the two days would not pass without our seeing some proper action. He was tall and confident, with the swagger of a man who had been around this particular block a few times. He had a blue-eyed glint and a truly terrible moustache. But he was right. On the first day, I got some action all right, but it wasn’t exactly what I expected.
The fire station was comfortable, with a large relaxation area, a pool table and television, but we did no relaxing. There were machines to clean, training exercises to be done, and they felt honour bound to conquer my fear of heights at the top of a tower (they didn’t. They made me very, very scared of heights indeed). Then there was the endless volleyball match. A highly competitive event that was apparently more important than just about anything else in a Middlesbrough fireman’s life and, incidentally, a far more potent source of injury and sick days than anything that generally happened on the job.
The fun and smiles stopped the moment there was a ‘shout’. People dropped what they were doing and ran for the trucks. I pulled on the highly unfashionable rubber trousers and boots, and, after only the briefest of wonderful thoughts about what Chevvy would have done to me wearing these, I jumped aboard the fire truck feeling absolutely part of the team. Nick and the lads piled on around me and we headed off into the city with the blue lights flashing and the sirens screaming. It was magic. Fire trucks go surprisingly slowly, but the engine’s roar and the siren’s wail and the traffic leaping to the sides around us mean the excitement was intense. The only sad thing was that the service gets so many false alarms and crap callouts to deal with that the firemen themselves do not get excited every time the bell goes. They fully expect that most calls are going to be a waste of time. They have a small context for every call quite quickly, and more often than not recognise the signs of a false alarm very early on, but they are still obliged to check it out. On this occasion, it was serious. We were told that there was a guy threatening to commit suicide from a high rise block of flats. We arrived on the scene amongst a gathering crowd. Sure enough, there he was, distantly visible at a great height, naked, and out on a window ledge. You couldn’t see very well – it was drizzly and he was very high up – but it looked to me like he was clinging on by his hands. I felt my stomach go queasy for him. Unless we could act fast, it wouldn’t be long before he would be coming down the quick way…
The jumper was too high for the ladders, so some of the guys started setting up a means of catching him whilst I, along with two coppers, three firemen and nine members of the public, counted up the seventeen floors and along to his position at the sixth window. After a loud disagreement or three about how many floors up he was, and a recount or nine about how far across, we had the sums done. We went into the flats, jumped in the lift, and set off to try and get to him from the inside.
It was kind of strange to be standing in a lift crowded out with firemen. People never know quite what to do in lifts. Whatever our day consists of, emergency or not, it must all go on hold and we must all stare at the back of each others heads and listen to gently piped music for the time it takes for the lift to take us where we are going. There we all were, in our helmets and fireproof gear and holding axes, but just standing there in a bunch. It struck me as odd, not just because of the quiet inertia in the middle of an emergency situation; more because, when I signed up for the Merchant Navy almost exactly one year earlier, I couldn’t possibly have imagined that my signature could somehow lead me to be standing gormlessly in a lift in the centre of Middlesbrough in the midst of a tightly bunched group of stationary fire fighters listening to Shakatak. It just didn’t scan. It was particularly incongruent when the lift stopped at floor 9, where an elderly lady with a cat basket was waiting for the lift. She looked at the sea of firemen in front of her and blinked hugely through Magoo glasses.
‘You going down, duck?’ she said, and started to barge her way in with us. Nick stood in her way.
‘Sorry, love. Emergency. We’re using this lift. You can’t come in.’
She looked puzzled. ‘Shouldn’t you lot have a fire engine?’
Nick smiled as he pressed the button twenty times to get the doors to shut.
‘Sorry, love,’ said Nick. ‘There’ll be another one along in a minute.’
The doors shut and we looked at each other shaking our heads at the things that get in the way of the emergency services. Life and death could hang on it, and she wasn’t even pushing the right button. Whatever next.
A few moments later, there was a ‘Ping!’, the doors drew open and there looking back at us, an elderly lady with a cat basket was waiting for the lift. She looked at the sea of firemen in front of her and blinked hugely through Magoo glasses.
‘You going down, duck?’ she said, then tried to force her way in.         
‘Will you stop pressing the goddam button!’ yelled Nick. ‘We’re trying to attend an emergency here!’
‘Don’t worry, duck,’ she said, patting his arm. ‘A load of your lot went up already. They’ll be there by now.’
Eventually we arrived at the seventeenth floor and life restarted with a ‘Ping!’ We left the lift as one and galloped along the corridors like a sixteen-legged beast, with eight heads all counting doors as we went. We decided we had the right one, knocked and waited – again, in a strangely inert bunch – around the door to the flat. It was as if we were playing a weird party game, requiring all eight of us to try and stand in the one pair of boots, on exactly the same spot on the ground. We must have looked like a human bunch of flowers.
A gentleman answered the door. He was around forty, wearing a silk bathrobe and with a posh cigarette drooping from his limply raised hand. Had the cigarette been in a long black holder he was Oscar Wilde. He seemed surprised to see a bunch of fire fighters all standing in exactly the same spot outside his doorway. We waited for a pithy Wilde one-liner.
‘Can I help you?’ he asked. Not brilliant, I suppose, but we didn’t give him long, and it got the message across. There was a woman in the room behind him, relaxing on the sofa.
We stared at him in silence for a moment; there was no emergency here.
‘Sorry, mate. Wrong door,’ shouted Nick, and, in a single bunch we all moved as one – like the Ant Hill Mob in Wacky Races – along the corridor to the next door, from which a fat, sweaty woman with spiked, scarlet hair, a screaming baby under her arm and two yappy dogs invited us, in a definitive and charming local Cleveland dialect, to fuck off.
We Ant Hill Mobbed it across to the door on the other side of Oscar Wilde. Some studenty kids, doing something they all looked massively guilty about, begged us not to tell anyone they were there, so we began to think we must have the wrong floor after all.
Nick radioed down to the guys at the ground level and sparked a fresh round of counting up and across, and they came to the same conclusion as us. We were in the right place.
We checked which floor we were on, and which way was west, and told each other that we simply couldn’t understand it. This done, we gathered once more around Oscar Wilde’s door. The silk bathrobe answered again. This time he was much funnier.
‘Do you want money or something?’
Still some way to go, but a definite improvement. Nick no longer had time for small talk.
‘This is an emergency and we need to look out of your window,’ he announced, and we all barged past and into the room. 
‘Hey! Do you mind! This is a private residence! You have no right to…’
Blah blah blah. I mean, that was barely funny at all. Barging past was much more fun! The bloke and his protests soundly shoved out of the way, we all sailed into the living room in our tight bunch, doffing our hats and politely waving axes at the surprised looking woman on the sofa as we cruised sideways across towards the room which we reckoned had a jumper on the ledge. It was a bedroom. The window was closed, and there was nobody standing outside, but we figured we would at least be able to see where the jumper was from here.
We stood corporately on the bed, opened the window and all eight heads leaned out at once. There in the next window along – a second window for the same room in which we were standing – was a rubber doll. She wafted and wobbled in the wind; wide-mouthed, wide-eyed and despite the drizzle and the fact that her thumb was jammed into the closed window, she appeared to be ready for just about anything.
Nick smiled broadly as he spoke into his radio.
‘False alarm lads. It’s a rubber doll…’
‘A what?!’ crackled back the reply.
 ‘You heard,’ said Nick. ‘Same model as your one, boss.’ He winked at me.
I looked back at the living room where the man and woman were sitting. ‘What do we do now?’ I asked.
Nick shrugged. ‘The bloke’s been caught out, hasn’t he? His missus has come home whilst he’s, erm, pumping up his inflatable friend there, so he’s chucked it out the window, and made out he was having a shower or something. Then someone in the shopping centre’s called 999 thinking she’s gonna jump!’
‘Yich! She’s better off out there,’ said one of the guys, giving me a picture of Oscar that I really didn’t need.
Nick laughed. ‘OK lads, show’s over. I’ll take the guy to one side and have a private word to make sure it doesn’t happen again. You lot get back down.’
We all trailed back out past the red-faced man, who stood with pursed lips and avoided eye contact, and his other half sat looking somewhat baffled on the sofa. Nick was starting his diplomatic little chat as I left.
‘OK, sir. I do need to highlight a fire safety issue for you, if you wouldn’t mind stepping back into the bedroom here…?’
Halfway down, there was a ‘Ping!’ the lift stopped and the doors opened. Two puzzled eyes blinked at us through huge Magoo glasses and a cat that was massively fed up with the day he’d had so far meowed pitifully.
‘Yes, love, we’re going down,’ said one of the firemen as we made space for her. ‘Do you want a fireman’s lift?!’
She stared at us all the way down. It was unnerving.
‘You know what, duck?’ she said as we helped her out at the bottom. ‘I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere before…’
By the time we got to ground level, the jumper had gone. She had been brilliantly talked out of it – another successful suicide avoided and another relationship saved by our magnificent fire brigade.