Different in my day
A lot can change over the decades both at work and at home and, in the first of our new series, we speak to father-and-daughter firefighters who compare their experience of the job then and now…
Mark Archer, 58, retired from the London Fire Brigade after 29 years of service, and now lives in Carrickmacross in Ireland, with his partner, Pauline
Being a firefighter always appealed to me, especially the chance to help people in trouble. The brigade is hard to get into, and I applied three times before being accepted. When I finished my 18-week training course, I joined Blue Watch in Holloway, London, in 1987. It was very different then – we still wore 1940s black woollen tunics with silver buttons, cork helmets and plastic gloves and trousers. The uniform changed four times while I was in the brigade, and by the time I left, it was much improved – you no longer got hot ears while attending a fire!
Over 29 years, I only ever worked with three female firefighters. I found it a breath of fresh air to work alongside women, who changed the dynamic of a watch for the better. But there were always some men who found it hard to accept. When I worked in Hendon, the brigade had a huge three-storey pole. Once, the alarm went off while I was in the shower, and because I was still wet, I shot down it! People got the odd broken ankle if they didn’t control their speed.
A lot of our time was spent checking and rechecking our equipment, and that hasn’t changed. When we went into fires, we’d throw a breathing-apparatus tally – which kept track of us and our apparatus – at our control officer to tell them we were going inside. They’d then have to work out how long we’d each been in the fire against how much oxygen we were carrying, and call us out via our radios when it was likely to be running low.
Now, everything is run by an Entry Control Board – 4G signals track each firefighter andso I could apply for the fire service. Once I had the operation and applied, I was successful, and trained in Southwark for two years to be an FFD – a firefighter in development. My training was longer but less regimented than Dad’s. His training focused on drill and repetition. We were taught how to do everything from using the ladders and pumps to how to respond to a hazardous substances’ incident or a road traffic accident. We did a bit of first aid, too.
The job I do now deals with a lot of the same things that Dad did, though homes are generally safer because of smoke alarm regulations, fewer people smoking, and safer textiles – these days, your sofa is a lot less likely to catch fire if you drop a cigarette on to it. We do more prevention work, such as putting up smoke alarms and giving advice, and see and work with a lot more vulnerable people than before. It can be hard dealing with someone with dementia who’s in distress after causing a fire by putting their electric kettle on the stove.
Health and safety at work is probably the biggest change between Dad’s time and mine. Today, I could be working in a 300-degree room and not feel it because of our protective uniforms. Our jackets and trousers are waterproof, very heavy, and cover every inch of us. The woollen tunics in Dad’s day would get wet, then create steam, which could burn the firefighter wearing it. Dad used to rush into buildings without a second’s thought, but now we have to think about our safety and that of the team first.
Because I’m a watch manager, looking after seven firefighters, I do a lot more paperwork than Dad did, detailing every incident. We’re moving towards doing things digitally, but firefighters still have to make a record on paper that they’ve safety-checked all their equipment.
There are four women in my station of 25. We do exactly what our male colleagues do – there are no exceptions. However, it helps to have a variety of people on a watch as every person brings something different to the team. Being the shortest, I often used to climb through small windows that some of my taller, larger colleagues couldn’t get through; and if I can’t reach something, my taller colleagues will do the task instead.
The job can be really tough. You see some horrific things, and even with the team’s support, it gets to you. The relationship we have with our colleagues gets us through it, and we have brilliant counselling and well-being services – something that didn’t exist when Dad started out.
But on bad days, when I think I can’t carry on, I still ring my dad. I called him recently, crying my eyes out, and said, ‘I think I’ve seen a bit too much.’ I always know he’ll understand what I’m talking about. I still think about the shift we did together – it’ll probably be the highlight of my career. I’m so proud to have followed in his footsteps, and no matter how hard it gets, I can’t see myself doing anything else.