News images of fires engulfing Ferguson, Missouri, brought back painful memories for one firefighter but also a reminder of the unequivocal ethos guiding the fire brigade
Waking up to the scenes coming out of Ferguson, near St Louis, I was once again reminded of the variety of challenges I face as a firefighter.
It was only in 2011 that on this side of the Atlantic we faced an almost identical challenge, dealing with fires under extraordinarily dangerous conditions.
We have rugged and thought-out procedures put in place to try and keep us safe and effectively deal with incidents of this magnitude.
However, the risk to my colleagues and myself can never be totally eliminated.
It also reminds me that the events which lead to the civil unrest become utterly irrelevant to us. As firefighters we pride ourselves on taking no prejudice to those we help.
We care very little about who you are, what you stand for and what you may or may not have done. Our help will be there for you regardless.
The recent events in Ferguson have been sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer. It completely echoes the riots that sparked in London with the shooting of Mark Duggan — once again, racism raises its ugly head. The people feel let down and this soon festers into anger.
When incidents like this happen, we rely on our justice system and authorities to deal effectively with these tragic situations but sometimes, and because of the system’s failings and corruption, tensions overflow leading to riots, destruction and multiple fires.
As a firefighter, I deal with incidents with the following mindset: I will risk everything to save a life, I will risk a lot to save a building but I will risk very little to save those that are already lost.
During riots these lines get blurred. Information becomes sketchy, tensions are high and knowing who to trust becomes a real issue.
As a team we risk walking into an ambush, as individuals we risk being isolated and finding ourselves in a very perilous situation.
It’s difficult to follow the normal guidelines as it is far from being a normal situation. It becomes so dynamic that what you think you are going to walk into changes considerably once you get there. With this, the danger of making a mistake inevitably increases.
Although most people will not see the fire service as the enemy, there are always the few that we must be extremely wary of.
These are the thugs who are not there for any moral or political reason but are there simply to cause terror and destruction.
My own experience was of the London riots spilling over to Birmingham.
It was minor compared to the battlefield that London Fire Brigade faced, but I’m not ashamed to admit I was very uneasy with the potential situation I could have faced.
Luckily, by the time I came on duty, it had settled down somewhat and I attended only a handful of incidents. I know colleagues of mine were not so lucky, having to deal with some very unsettling situations.
Everyone, however, went home to their families and I just hope that the firefighters of Ferguson will be able to do the same. My thoughts go out to them.