David Cameron, in the run up to the election on Thursday, has described himself as “like a firefighter”. You can read an excellent response to his statement in an article in The Guardian, here.
Cameron said “Sometimes I feel like a firefighter”. Let me tell you about the man I call Himself, my ex husband and a firefighter for twenty eight years. Then you can see if you think Cameron is, in any way, “like a firefighter”.
Himself joined the fire brigade at 20. He served for 28 years and would have done 30 had he not had to come out on the sick – take early retirement – when he got a second deep vein thrombosis in his leg. He’s just an ordinary guy, you wouldn’t look twice at him in the street. But he was, for many years, an unsung hero. He wouldn’t like being called a hero, not many firefighters do. This is Himself, back to the camera, doing a visit to our daughter’s nursery many years ago
When we met, Himself was working what is called the ‘day crewing’ system of shifts. Four days and nights on the bounce followed by four ‘rote’ or rest days. He was on station from 8am-6pm then on call overnight. His shift didn’t end until 8am on his first rote day. Every meal was rushed, we couldn’t make plans, could only go out within a five minute radius of the fire station. I was often left standing in a pub, a shop, a take away when he was called out.
Himself was – still is – a big, strong guy. The fire brigade was a man’s world, an extra family, a brotherhood. They watched out for each other. They used dark humour, gallows humour, to cope with some of the things they saw. I won’t go into detail, I’m sure you can imagine. He was often out all night, or in and out all night with very little rest between jobs. He would come home and barely get through the door before he was tipped out again into the darkness.
Firefighters have a very distinct smell – smoke and diesel and the strange fusty smell of the appliance room – that clings to everything. Himself would come home, grimy and sooty and covered in smuts and rock our baby back to sleep or warm his icy feet on my warm ones.
And when the sights were too much to bear and he broke down in tears, it was me who put him back together, who took his trauma and kept him safe. And all the other fire brigade wives and girlfriends did the same for their men. When he left for each call, neither of us knew when or if he would be back.
One afternoon, when K was just a baby, there was a knock at my door. We were both napping. There was the Assistant Chief Fire Officer, informing me that Himself had had an accident and was being airlifted to hospital with a suspected broken back. Standing on my doorstep, my still-sleepy baby in my arms, my worst fears were realised. The ACO explained that, while at a moor fire, Himself had been reversing one of the ATVs when the guy directing him misjudged the distance and he drove off a cliff. The ACO was there to take me to the hospital. Imagine that moment, if you can. I was 25, maybe 26. My daughter was a little baby. And my husband was, from initial reports, very seriously injured. Fortunately there is a happy ending – he escaped, miraculously, with cuts and bruises. But for many other fire brigade families the outcome is, tragically, very different.
Firefighters have been kicked in the teeth by successive governments over pay, pensions and retirement. And now Cameron has compared himself to them. You judge – does he have any right to “feel like a firefighter”?