For people of a certain generation, our image of the fire brigade is irreversibly coloured by Trumpton, the popular children’s television series in which the fire brigade turned out weekly but never saw so much as a spark of a real fire.
Naturally the 21st century fire brigade is somewhat different from children’s entertainment of the 1970s – there’s no leisurely roll call before jumping aboard the fire engine to drive repeatedly past what appeared to be the same row of terraced houses.
And on arrival they are more likely to find the inferno at Mount Murray than be called on to rescue a cat or a rocking horse from the top of an unlit bonfire. (For anyone who doesn’t recall that episode, someone’s life savings were hidden inside it.)
So when members of the media were invited to Douglas fire station to try the assessment exercises given to potential new recruits, it was hard to know what to expect.
Station officer Nigel Cain has been in the service for more than 20 years and puts applicants through the selection process. The service is currently finishing its latest recruitment drive for both full-time and retained staff.
‘We try to get people doing a few of the practical exercises like wearing the breathing apparatus and tackling confined spaces – in the dark,’ he said. ‘We also like to test how people are with heights and using ladders, and we also have them running out lengths of hose and recoiling them within a time limit.’
Also on the agenda for the night were group working and aptitude tests.
‘Part of that is to see how well people work with each other in a group and part is to see how well they can perform the task under pressure,’ Nigel said.
Groups are given a problem – rescuing a casualty from the other side of a pirhana-infested river which has no bridge across it, for example. They have time to discuss strategy and a budget. There’s a list of equipment but each item has a price and what they take has to be decided according to need and budget.
‘It’s amazing what some people think is essential when under pressure,’ said Nigel. ‘I’ve yet to discover why some candidates think they need a grappling hook, for example. To drag the casualty back?’
A few minutes later and I’m kitted out with a large fire service-issue padded jacket and over-trousers – presumably fireproof – a fireman’s helmet and breathing apparatus consisting of a cylinder worn on the back and face mask.
Next it’s off to a special room set up with a series of obstacles. The interior is all painted black and there are no windows. Under the electric light you can see a series of partitions, barriers and tunnels – quite narrow – to crawl through. The idea is to do it one way with the light on then find your way back again in the pitch dark. It’s not an exercise to delight anyone with claustrophobia.
The clothing is thick and bulky and the air cylinder has a tendency to slip and jam in some of the passages which are so narrow you have to go in with arms outstretched because there isn’t room to change their position once you are confined inside. It’s hot and the mask steams up – but this isn’t a great hindrance as there’s not a lot to see anyway. Actually it’s quite a laugh so I opt to do the return with no lights on – in the pitch dark as candidates are required to. Again it’s fairly straightforward – though I am aided by my puny stature.
‘People do drop out on that initial stage,’ Nigel says.
‘Some people hate the confined space and occasionally people can panic. We have also had people who couldn’t bear wearing the breathing apparatus. I think they were really disappointed but they found it too confining and claustrophobic on their face.’
A fireman (or woman) with vertigo is of course impractical, so next came the ladder test. A large (ie long) aluminium step ladder is placed against the side of the station’s practice tower while I climb part way up, watched by an equally precariously placed photograher, who is yet further up on one of the tower balconies.
‘Now you need to ...... and let go and lean back...’ said Nigel’s now distant voice drifting up from ground level.
‘Make sure you wedge your leg behind the lower rung as I showed you,’ he added.
The idea is to prove you could lean back, letting go of the ladder, and survey the ground below if required. Again the correct technique for locking on to the ladder by hooking a foot behind the lower rung makes it perfectly safe. Happily our photographer does not require me to offer a fireman’s lift back down to ground level.
Hose running is next on the agenda - and is harder than it looks. The hose reel weighs around 20 kilos and the technique is to lift it quickly and get it turning: the faster it uncoils the quicker you lose the weight and the less tiring it is.
‘There is a certain amount of upper body strength required for this,’ Nigel says.
‘For instance we get some super fit people who could run rings around me in any of the aerobic fitness exercises we do but sometimes people concentrate on that at the expense of strength or they may not have the best technique to do something.’
As we finish off, the evening shift receives a call out. The alert starts off quietly and gets gradually louder as the fire fighters don uniforms which are specially laid out so they can literally step straight into them , climb aboard the fire engine and go within moments.
Happily there is still one similarity to Trumpton: Douglas fire station retains the famous firemen’s pole and it is sometimes used as it’s the quickest way to the fire engine from some upstairs rooms.
The fire service has periodic recruitment drives. Candidates need to be fit and healthy, have a sound basic education and live (and work, in the case of retained crew) in the area they will serve. Minimum age is 18 and upper age is around 45 but this is flexible.