It’s 11.50pm on a Thursday night. We’re getting ready to settle down to bed when the lights come on and the bells go down — we’ve got a shout.
I drop my bedding in a heap, run out of the dorm and slide down the pole to the fire engine. You’ve got sixty seconds from the bells going down to the appliance having to be out the bay doors. I step into my fire boots and pull my leggings up by the braces in one movement.
The guvnor comes round the corner from the watch room with the tip sheet in his hand. He shouts out to us: “Smoke issuing, persons reported”. My heart rate quickens. Persons reported. It’s on our ground and I’m down as one of two initial breathing apparatus wearers tonight, so if there’s really a fire, I’ll be the first in.
As we pull out of the station, the guvnor shouts for us to get our sets on. B and I prep so we are ready to throw them on when we arrive — putting our masks around our necks, turning the air cylinders on and taking the set from its bracket. It’s easier said than done, fiddling with an awkward 15kg set while being thrown from pillar to post in the back of the cab as we swerve aggressively through traffic.
We pull up and I practically throw myself out of the truck, carrying a thermal imaging camera and a long line. We reach the building, with an opening through the building leading to a courtyard with a dozen residents looking on. To the left is the staircase to the flats; to the right, fire is punching out of a small room and beginning to catch the ceiling.
B and I get under air, starting up our sets, putting on our masks. T, the driver, is pulling out a hose reel, the quickest method of attack to deploy, and getting the pump to work. B and I give our telemetry tallies to K, who is the entry control operative, responsible for monitoring our air consumption and radio comms. We rush through our checks — checking each other’s PPE for gaps, confirming our gauge readings, checking our radio comms.
B grabs the hose reel and attacks the fire — the guvnor tells me to make entry to the staircase so we can get up to the flat where the reported trapped persons are.
The door to the stairs is locked. More firefighters have arrived — one runs to get breaking in gear, but I ask the residents for a key fob and gain access. Another breathing apparatus crew arrives with a 45mm main jet, more powerful than the hose reel, and takes over the firefighting.
B and I bound up the stairs, my heart beating out of my chest. The first and second floors are filled with grey smoke, although I still have reasonable visibility. I pound on the door to the flat. “London Fire Brigade, anybody there?” No answer. I knock again, the door shaking in its hinges. Nothing.
The smoke isn’t hugely thick and the flat is two floors above the fire, but given that they made the 999 call, you have to assume the worst and act accordingly. We’re going to need to break in. But K radios — the occupants are among those in the courtyard, and the fire is under control. I exhale.