“You must want to help people…” Day in the life of a firefighter

“[…] I like helping people. When I help you, and you know, you see the joy on people’s faces. I’m like: ‘I saved them. I saved somebody. I had my part to play in that.’ That is my joy—just being a helping hand…”

Wired868 highlights the day-to-day lives of everyday Trinbagonians in our ongoing series entitled: ‘A day in the life…’ Today, we speak with an anonymous firefighter:

A Trinidad and Tobago firefighter.
Photo: TT Fire Service

What can you tell us about yourself?

I’ve been a firefighter for the past 18 years in the Trinidad and Tobago Fire Service. I’m also an emergency medical technician in the Trinidad and Tobago Fire Service for the past 15 years. That’s about it. I love the Fire Service. Can’t complain.

Can you describe a typical day as a fire officer?

A day could go into anything. When I come into work, I test the equipment, check the equipment, and make sure it’s ready for the day of work. We go into some training, a little training exercise, just to get ourselves ready for the day. It can lead to many things. Most of the time, once we do training, we would wait for an emergency or just continue the day until we get an emergency.

The most common emergencies I have been called into are housefires because accidents happen. We may take things for granted, but accidents do happen.

Can you describe your typical duties and responsibilities?

For me, I am more like a senior firefighter here, so I more or less get the guys prepared and ready for the parade, make sure everybody’s there, make sure I have enough staff to work with. My day really starts from the day before, so I liaise with some guys to know what they’re doing, if they’re coming. So, I’ll do that.

More or less liaising with my officers to see what plans they have for us and be a leader on the shift.

How many firefighters normally respond to an emergency?

A normal amount would be four firefighters on a firetruck, then two on the ambulance; so six firefighters in total. The crew going with the truck would be skilled in extrication and would render any assistance, and the ambulance crew would help with the medical side of things.

The minimum might be six, but if it’s a bigger or major fire, it could have up to 20 to 30 firefighters.

A team of firefighters get to work.

What types of training and certifications are required to become a fire officer? 

To get into the Trinidad and Tobago Fire Service, it’s still three subjects. You must have Math and English, three O’ Levels, and other requirements such as driving. Driving would be a plus. If you have any medical background—EMT, first responders, nursing, anything—all of that would be a plus for you to come into the Service.

How do you prepare for the challenges of firefighting?

We tend to do a lot of training, especially at this station. We have a physical training instructor on the shift, so we get to do gym work [and] we do physical exercises on a day-to-day basis. For me, as I said, my days really start the day before I get to work.  You have to really put yourself in gear and mentally prepare.

I work on the ambulance as well. I’m a medic, so I’ve seen plenty things. So, you know, you just have to prepare your mind going into this environment. Prepare your mind to know that anything could happen, and no situation is the same. So I just prepare myself in that way and know that I am capable and I can handle it.

Illustration: A firefighter to the rescue.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

I like helping people. When I help you, and you know, you see the joy on people’s faces. I’m like: “I saved them. I saved somebody. I had my part to play in that.” That is my joy—just being a helping hand.

Some people say firefighters are superheroes. We tend to live that way. When we arrive, we have come to help you.

What are the most common misconceptions or myths about firefighting?

People believe that we really don’t do anything. There are days we might not do anything, but we’ll be working behind the scenes: building ourselves, preparing ourselves for a situation at some point. People don’t see inside the building. They’ll only see us on the media or something—that we reached five minutes late or 10 minutes late.

Firefighters undergo training at their headquarters.

Can you share a memorable experience or incident from your career that had a significant impact on you?

There’s so many. I went on so many calls, I’ve seen so many things. I remember going on a call on the Valencia Stretch. I always talk about this. On the Valencia Stretch, it used to have a bridge. It was one way, and I went on that call.

We reached the call, and I was only seeing bodies on the ground. I think it was a maxi or something that crashed. That was memorable to me because it was so big of a call, and we had to deal with so many people at once, and I was thinking we have to get better in terms of dealing with these types of situations.

So, that is what led me to go and do my Emergency Medical Technician course and really advance myself in terms of helping people and being on the medical side of things.

Firefighters respond to an accident on a US interstate highway.

It impacted me because of the amount of people. I remember dreaming about that for some days with the amount of people that were on the ground, but that impacted me in terms of getting myself better and in terms of dealing with people.

How do you handle the emotional and psychological stress that can come with the job?

Well, as a spiritual person, church helped me a lot, in terms of praying. We pray a lot on shifts. We have a few pastors on the shifts, so we pray a lot, try to build up each other. When we go on a call, we come back and we talk about it—not letting men just go home and mull on it.

We just try to build each other up and motivate one another, always trying to make ourselves better. I think once we start to get more confidence, you know, there will be an ease, so it wouldn’t play on your mind.

Illustration: Ian Rackley

Has your perception of the firefighting profession evolved since you began your career?

My perception of it didn’t change as much, per se. You have to do things to really get the Service where you want it to be… I’ll say though, we wouldn’t be getting the equipment that we really need on time, so you know we have to work with what we have—so it really didn’t change.

I thought it would have been a higher standard. I find it is still a little low.

What do you think can change the standard or improve the standard of the Service?

Definitely more funding into the Fire Service. People say we don’t really do much, but we do a lot.  I think if more money starts to come into Service, better equipment, better training for personnel, the standard will get higher.

Firefighter uniforms.

What equipment is needed and what would you use it for?

We have many equipment that we use on a day-to-day basis. We need hoses to run water, we use the “jaws of life” which is an extrication tool. We also use something called a rotary saw and we also have breathing apparatuses, which we use to get into smoke-filled rooms.

In your opinion, what are the key qualities and skills that make a successful fire officer?

You must be physically fit. You also have to have the right mindset, wanting to help people. Also, communication. Communication is key. You have to be able to talk and not just keep things in. You must be able to talk, but the number one skill is being physically fit.

A firefighter puts out a bush fire in Diego Martin.
Photo: TT Fire Service

The outcome of not being physically fit will definitely show up on your day to day. You will be like the weakest link, and we don’t want to be the weakest link. So that’s why we tend to build everybody up. I know everybody would not be at the same level, but if you’re at a one, we want to see you go to a two and then three.

What is the best advice you can give regarding fire prevention and accident prevention?

Have some form of safety knowledge. Try to understand your safety habits in the workplace, keep your corridors clear, and do some fire safety training. For people driving, make sure your vehicles are regularly inspected, check your tires, check brakes, you know, make sure your car has regular maintenance from the mechanic.

Basically, safety is the number one priority. Safety is key.

Firefighter Allister Williams gives a presentation about the use of fire extinguishers.
Photo: TT Fire Service

How do you balance your schedule with your personal life and family commitments?

Balance is something I learned early. My wife and I speak regularly, we go out with the children. Work will be hectic sometimes, but once I get that down time, we maximize on it. So we go out and we have fun.

What advice would you give to individuals aspiring to become fire officers?

If you love it, do it. If you want to join, join. It’s something that you have to want to do. If you want to help people, if you want to be a pillar in the community, if you want to be an example to youths, you could come in.

A Siparia Fire Service firefighter offers a demonstration to a Penal Quinam Government ECCE Centre pupil.
Photo: TT Fire Service

I had a good example from my kindergarten teacher. She called me one time and told me she’s so proud of me, because she remembered we went to visit the fire station back then, and I was the only one who was excited on the trip. I had enthusiasm towards the job and so maybe that drew me to it. So, you must have that pull to do it.

If you want to save people, if you want to be a pillar in your community and an example to others, then the Fire Service is a good place for you.

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