Green Watch are always on red alert

ON their first two shifts of the year Green Watch responded to a total of 14 emergency calls.It is perhaps ironic, or in fact inevitable, that when I joined them for their third shift of 2002 they didn't receive a single call all day.

By Matt Eley

ON their first two shifts of the year Green Watch responded to a total of 14 emergency calls.

It is perhaps ironic, or in fact inevitable, that when I joined them for their third shift of 2002 they didn't receive a single call all day. Not even a cat stuck up a tree.

However this was not the disaster it could have been as it gave the observing reporter the chance to speak to the crew about their work, or duty as some call it, away from a dramatic scene.

Few events are either as dramatic or tragic as the fire in Marlow Road, Ipswich that claimed the life of seven-year-old schoolboy, Anton Fox.

The Green Watch crew managed to save one child from the blaze at the start of the year but the Handford Hall School pupil was pronounced dead at the scene.

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Purely by chance my visit coincided with the crew's first shift since the tragedy.

Understandably there is a degree of sadness and anger about the child's death but the firefighters know it is their job to be resilient and carry on with their work.

To the casual observer it appears firefighting is a career that is touched by tragedy and disaster on a not infrequent basis. Images of September 11 are enough to remind any individual of the potential traumas they can face.

However, to the men in the uniforms it is all part of the job, they also say health and safety regulations mean they are in a relatively safe industry.

At 54 Allan Finbow is only a few months away from retirement but his enthusiasm for the job is as strong as it was when he first signed up 28 years ago. He has been with Green Watch since 1978 and still thoroughly enjoys his career.

"It's the adrenaline rush. The whole thing is a buzz, it's a constant challenge to you. Of all of the jobs I have been on you could never say one is the same as the next, each has its own problems," he said.

And it seems there are very few firefighters who would choose to leave their career despite the harrowing incidents they come across.

Ian Self is the shift's probationer, meaning he is still in his first two years as a firefighter, essentially he is on the first rung of the ladder.

He enthuses about his new career away from landscape gardening and the teamwork it involves. The 32-year-old says it has altered his life completely.

"It has changed me to a person people would hardly recognise. Before my interview I was scruffy and had long hair, now I am much more organised and have become responsible. I certainly have a smoke detector in every room of the house."

The smoke detector is an important issue to the people you meet at the station. Everybody, without exception, firmly believes the device is a lifesaver.

As part of the service's community work, crews "Hot Spot" after incidents. This means they visit houses in areas where there has recently been a fire to see if properties have alarms, if not they fit them.

After Anton Fox's death eight out of the 100 houses visited in the area near his Whitehouse estate home did not have smoke alarms.

Community work is becoming an increasingly significant part of the service. As well as going to residential areas, crews also go to schools in a bid to educate people about the dangers of fire. It is the belief of Princes Street Assistant Divisional Officer, Karl Rolfe, that "prevention is as important as cure."

The message seems to be getting across, more fires were reported than ever before in Suffolk last year, arguably showing that people are keener to contact the service. However still only one in 11 fires are reported to the emergency services.

While the reporting of fires is on the increase the actual number of deaths and serious injuries sustained is on the decline.

One area where the service is keen to change is the way it is perceived by certain groups. Mr Rolfe is keen to stress that it is a career that is open to everybody.

Already advances are being made with women being recruited full-time and into the retained service, but this is just the start for the brigade.

"We appear to be making some progress and breaking down some barriers and we would like more people from ethnic minorities to come and join us as well," said Mr Rolfe.

However he added it is a career for people who want to serve the public: "You are not going to get rich doing this and you do see things that you don't want to see.

"You do have the chance to help people when they most need help such as in a fire or a road traffic accident. A firefighter's job is a rewarding job at times."

He is also keen to dispel the myth that in quiet times firefighters "sit around playing cards, waiting for the next call."

From my visit it is evident this is patently not the case.

Even though the bell does not sound once, the crews are constantly preparing, checking equipment, going through drills and discussing previous "shouts", to ensure everything will be in order when the alarm bells sound again.

What also becomes clear is the camaraderie and team work on show that is vital in making the service effective.

Sub Officer, Dave Collins, talks me through an incident as half of the crew demonstrate techniques used to rescue people trapped in cars.

The humour, that is only evident with close knit groups, fails to hide the fact that these men trust each other totally when working together.

Mr Collins says: "Team work is essential in this job, you have to be able to work together but it is also important not to negate the right of the individual.

"We have experienced people like Allan who help pass on their knowledge. Everybody is competent but some are better than others in certain situations and will take a more leading role."

Allan Finbow adds: "In most jobs you will get somebody who lets you down, but that just doesn't happen here."

According to Mr Collins the essential ingredients to be a successful firefighter are being observant, confident, reliable,

being able to work in a team and honesty.

They may well be seen as heroes by the people they rescue but Mr Collins and every other firefighter at Princes Street are not fond of that particular label.

"We do not enjoy that tag. Anyone can do this job with the relevant training. At the end of the day we are not heroes we are the same as everybody else who does a job."

That may well be the case but the current work crews are undertaking in the community indicates that they are much more than a service that simply responds to emergency calls.