My first priority when starting work at a large London fire station was nothing to do with being an operational firefighter, but to get to know the station culture. It’s a pretty unusual working environment, where you eat, sleep and work in close proximity for sometimes gruelling 12-hour shifts, and shared lives, danger and trauma can create strong bonds.
It can be an intimidating environment to join, and I’d heard stories from our trainers and others about some pretty tough beginnings.
A firefighter, O, has volunteered to be my mentor and support me with settling into station life and operational duties. He calls me the night before to check I have everything I need and meets me just inside the station on the first day. A real joker, he quickly helps me feel at ease, shows me around the station and is on hand to explain the oddities of station life, assuring me that no question was a stupid one. I have many such questions.
The only time he becomes serious is when he asks me if I was in the union, his tone and gaze making it clear there is only one correct answer.
When O introduces me over a cup of tea, I get nothing but warm welcomes from my new watch (the group of firefighters I will be working with on a permanent rota pattern). They are happy with the two boxes of Krispy Kremes I brought, an act the importance of which was stressed repeatedly during training.
Cake is a big deal in the fire brigade. I’m told that my first “tour” (the set of shifts that constitutes our working week, two days followed by two nights), first “wear” (of breathing apparatus) and first fatal incident are among many cake-able milestones. A firefighter who once neglected this tradition is called “a tight-arsed cakeless bastard” to general agreement. Another advises me not to go down the pole carrying a tray of teas, a lesson he learnt the hard way. The atmosphere is boisterous, convivial and sweary.
We wash up, with everyone bar the washer-upper grabbing a tea towel and queuing up next to the drying rack, drying and putting away mugs as they are washed up and re-joining the back of the queue. It’s a sign of how the watch does everything together — it’s a team, and this is true in small things as in big.
The vast majority of firefighters at each station collectively self-cater, known as the mess. The firefighter/mess manager, B, has put on sandwiches. The mess table is the social heart of the station, where arguments are had out, stories are told, and pots of tea are shared after a job.
Conversation turns to the union’s successful challenging of new guidance for firefighting in high-rises, which would have allowed firefighters to be sent above the floor where the fire is, into potentially irrespirable atmospheres, without donning their breathing apparatus sets. R argues that the union was overreacting, as firefighters would still have their sets on their back so could start them up if they felt conditions required it. T disagrees, arguing that conditions can deteriorate very quickly, and that we would be skipping the safety procedures used to check our sets work properly before entering a risk area.
It’s clear that the union is a fact of daily life on station. Everyone’s a member and engages with what the union is doing because they all recognise that they have a big stake in the union’s activities — it could well save your life.