ON a bitterly cold evening in Pocklington I joined a handful of the town’s retained firefighters as they headed to Beverley fire station for an evening of BA training, (that’s breathing apparatus to you and me).
The exercise involves getting kitted out in full oxygen tank and face mask gear before entering a pitch black smoke-filled room to rescue a human dummy in a simulation of a real-life incident.
The room is purpose-built for the exercise and is complete with sofas and tables much like any other living room - the difference is that this room has a smoke machine which quickly fills every crevice with impenetrable white smoke.
I watched as the crew ran through their drill, ‘buddy dressing’ each other before they entered the building.
Neil Eustace, risk reduction crew manager, oversees the operation and explains the procedure: “Obviously the crew will have got all their gear on themselves, but before you go inside it’s important that they quickly check each other’s kit so that no collar is open, or anything else that can let the heat in and cause injury,” he said.
“In a house fire, the heat can reach 1,000 degrees so you want to be sure that you are as protected as you can possibly be.”
Neil explains the system followed by the crew once they arrive at the scene of a fire.
One member is designated the role of ‘ECO’ - entry control officer - and they are responsible for monitoring the crew members going in and out of the building.
An identification tag for each firefighter is filled out and placed on a board at the back of the fire engine.
This details how much air they have in their tanks and the ‘final whistle’ time when they are expected to return to the engine.
Radio contact is maintained with the crew inside the building and information is relayed back to the officer who can inform other personnel, such as paramedics and police, as to how many casualties they have encountered.
The training exercise runs smoothly; the crew emerge from the depths of the smoke-filled room.
And then it’s my turn.
Being a rather adventurous type, and well-used to gearing up in motorcycle helmet and leathers every summer, I wasn’t overly fazed by the rather intimidating-looking breathing apparatus.
But once the cylinder is on your back and the oxygen mask is clinging tightly to your face, it’s a very strange feeling and does take time to get used to.
Hearing your own breath hissing into your ears is somewhat unnerving so I found myself trying to breathe less, which isn’t a good idea, really.
I entered the building under the supervision of Pocklington crew manager Baz Gargett, whose calm voice and steady guidance were the only thing stopping me from bouncing off walls and furniture as I fumbled my way along the dark corridor.
The smoke and the dark, coupled with the steady rhythm of your own breath (or rather, unsteady in my case) all combines to give you a feeling of complete disillusionment.
Within seconds of entering the building I doubt I would have found my way back out of it again.
As we progress, Baz explains what the crew need to do to stay safe.
“Before we go in, we’ll decide what direction we are going to travel round the room.
“We might say that we are going to ‘lay left’ and that means you follow the wall on that side of you,” he said.
“You should keep your weight on your back foot and continually sweep the floor with your other foot because anything could be down there.
“Furniture, debris, or a casualty. You just don’t know.”
Baz lets me view the room looking through the TIC - thermal imaging camera - which is a remarkable piece of equipment that cuts through the smoke to illuminate body heat.
It’s an essential tool to help the crew locate people inside smoke-filled buildings.
I feel like Sigourney Weaver in an ‘Alien’ film as I move down the murky corridor with an oxygen tank strapped to my back and mask over my face, but the real thing has nothing to do with cinematic heroics.
After several minutes of me clutching Baz’s hand as I fumble my way along the wall, we then simulate dragging a body out of the room, me walking backwards as if I were holding a person under their arms and Baz leading me by holding on to my jacket.
I emerge from the building with a completely undeserved sense of accomplishment.
My small insight into the work of the retained firecrew is child’s play compared to what these crew members put themselves through.
Having seen how difficult it is to even walk in a straight line in a dark, unfamiliar, smoke-filled room, I got an inkling of just how difficult it must be in a real-life situation.
I didn’t have to contend with unbearable heat accompanying the smoke, nor did I have to contend with the thought that for someone in that building, my actions could mean the difference between their life, or their death.
Once outside, I was intrigued to find out what drives retained firefighters to sign up.
I met 24-year-old Stu Smith of Pocklington. A lorry driver by trade, but also a retained firefighter serving the local community.
For him, being part of the fire service was a lifelong dream, and he explains his reasons in simple terms.
He said: “It is helping people. For me to save somebody’s life, nothing can compare to that.
“No other job can give you that satisfaction.”
Risk reduction crew manager Neil adds: “It isn’t easy, but it is enjoyable and extremely worthwhile, especially for these guys because they are doing it for their own community.”
I couldn’t agree more, but if Pocklington fire service station doesn’t recruit extra retained crew, it faces the real possibility of not having enough firemen to take both engines when it comes to responding to local emergencies.
If that were to happen, Pocklington would lose a valuable locally-run service and one that we should be rightly very proud of.
So what are you waiting for? If you’re able-bodied and live or work within five minutes of the station, why not give it a go?
If I can do it (ish), then anyone can.