As members of firefighting crews around the world bow their heads for a minute of silence on International Firefighters Day, Adelaide MFS senior firefighter Paul Harrington will recall a quarter of a century of memories of what it means for him to be a fireperson.
In 1985, after years of jumping between short-term jobs, Paul applied for the for a firefighter’s position at the MFS.
Passing a year of training and selection criteria, Paul started his career in February 1986.
“That’s when my whole world opened up.”
Paul had found more than a job.
He’d found a home, he’d found a family, and he had found a group of men and women that every day he can trust with his life.
The early days
When Paul first began with the MFS, firemen (the first woman joined the Adelaide crew in the following year) would race to scenes on converted trucks in drill cotton work wear, donning plastic hard hats, and attempt to tackle urban fires.
In the years since, women now run beside the men, the clothing and personal protective equipment is state of the art, and fire fighting vehicles have become custom built machines able to transport around 3,000 litres of water and specialised equipment to do everything from freeing people from tangled vehicle wreckages to containing hazardous chemical spills.
Over the years the expectation of a firefighter has also changed.
They are now trained to be the primary controllers of a fire scene, attend road crash incidents, conduct search and rescue operations, be able to carry out abseil rescue operations and even mentor young fire offenders.
It’s a career that manages to still challenge Paul on a daily basis, some 25 years later.
St Florian’s Day
Firefighters around the world pause on St Florian’s Day to remember those that did not make it back to the firehouse.
For the Adelaide MFS, training and equipment mean firefighting teams are now in touch with all members of their crew at all times.
Packs can monitor the exact location of each firefighter in an incident, and tell if the crew members are in trouble from data sent through their individual locators.
As the technology and training has increased, the exposure to risk has become more finely managed.
“Saying that though, every now and then you do get clobbered by ceiling tiles,” Paul said.
“It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does, it rattles your fillings a little bit.”
International Firefighters Day is a day that Paul uses to remember those that he could not save.
The people found trapped inside their homes, caught by a fire, or the people who pass away on the side of the road at a vehicle accident.
“It’s those that die when we are trying to rescue them, when we are trying to cut the vehicle from them,” Paul remembers.
“That’s very, very hard on the crews, it’s hard on the ambulance people, it’s hard on everybody.”
Paul’s voice starts to waver as he talks about the times the crews are called to a fire at an elderly persons home at night.
“It always seems more surreal at night.”
The neighbours have told emergency services there is an elderly person inside.
The fire crews breakdown the front door and discover the person deceased, trapped inside.
The teams carry the person out of the house and provide CPR until ambulance officers advise them that all life is gone.
“We’re very good at saving people, but we’re not very good at losing people, and that puts a real downer on people for quite some time.”
Another change Paul has witnessed over the past 25 years is the level of support and counselling now offered to staff who are involved in traumatising events.
When the heads bow
As the flags are lowered to half mast, the heads bow and firefighters observe their moment of silence, Paul will also used the time to reflect on the lives he has been able to change for the better.
The people that we resuscitated at the scene of a fire.
The people he has been able to remove from the tangled mess of an accident scene.
“I like to think of the good things we’ve done.
“It’s very easy to take a step back, become pessimistic, and think about the people we have lost, but that is not good for your heart, it is not good for your head, and it doesn’t do the fire service any good either.”
It’s also a day when he tries to remember the lighter side of the job.
The animals rescued from trees, and returned to the arms of delighted owners.
Surprisingly, after 25 years of service, Paul is yet to meet or be personally thanked by someone he has rescued.
They often receive information back from the ambulance paramedics that a patient has made a great recovery or is receiving treatment, the odd card is sent to the station, but he is yet to actually have someone he has saved called in to simply say hello or offer a thank you.
“Quite often we just don’t hear about that person with all of those severe injuries that we pulled out of their smashed car, or the old lady that we pulled out of her burning home.”
It’s not something that Paul expects, but it does seem somewhat sad.
It’s the cards that the station receives with written messages and drawings from a person’s children that really touch the heart of the senior firefighter.
“That’s really special actually, that’s something that we really hold dear to us, that this little kid now isn’t going to be an orphan, or is not going to grow up without a mum or a dad.
“That’s pure gold actually,” Paul adds with a smile.
Thankfully the South Australian Fire Service has not lost a large number of firefighters, but something to be even more thankful for is the number of men and women who continue to risk their lives each day for the safety of others.
May 4 is the feast day of St Florian, the patron saint of firefighters and chimney sweeps.
Source: ABC Brisbane, Australia