“Get your black hands off me!” the woman said to me as I went to rescue her from the burning house. So I stepped back and let one of my white colleagues pick up the woman and take her out of the house.
These are the words a black firefighter said to me when I bought a car from him many years ago.
While test driving the car I was asking him about his job and about what were some of the most shocking things that he had encountered during his work.
I was expecting him to tell me about a horrific fire, or having to rescue a child from a burning tower. Instead, he told me this.
Humans are always more horrific than fires. Their fiery tongues can burn down many more things than fires can.
When I was detained in small group isolation in the Detainee Unit at HM Prison Long Lartin for five years, there was a ratio of seven of us detainees to four officers in a small confined unit.
With no one else to talk to, we would talk to the officers. We would probably spend more time with the officers than they would spend with their own families.
A few of the officers were miserable grumps who would not talk to us because they were afraid of being “conditioned”, whatever that meant. But several of them were decent people with whom one could have deep, meaningful conversations.
One of them was a man, let’s call him Kevin, who was an on-call firefighter while he was off duty from prison.
What that meant was that he was a trained firefighter who could be called at any time of the day or night when he was needed, providing he had made himself available “on-call.”
I used to sit and talk with Kevin for hours and hours about his experiences as a firefighter. It certainly passed the time better than watching television or staring at the walls.
Kevin told me about the heavy fireproof uniform that firefighters had to wear. “About 15kg. You are sweating buckets before you have even gone anywhere near a fire.”
Then he told me about the equipment: heavy hoses, reels, metal nozzles, ladders, lock-breaking tools… The average firefighter would be carrying an average of another 20kg of equipment with him when he entered a burning house.
He told me how most people in a fire die not of burning, but of smoke inhalation. He told me that it is crucial that every family and every home have fire evacuation procedures and practice drills.
This means that everyone in the house can be evacuated in 30 seconds in the total darkness that thick black smoke fills a house with during a fire. People frequently die because they cannot find the keys to their doors or windows to get out.
He told me that every home must have smoke alarms fitted outside kitchens and heat alarms fitted inside kitchens.
Importantly for me, he told me to ask my elderly parents to ring their local fire station to arrange a home visit so that my parents could be advised on their fire evacuation procedures.
The local firefighters visited my parents house and even fitted a few free smoke alarms for them, much to my reassurance.
Since the recent Grenfell Tower fire tragedy, I have felt saddened at the blame that has been dished out at the firefighters who attended the fire.
“They came late… They told the families to stay in their homes. They didn’t have the right equipment. More people died because of the fault of the firefighters….”
Hearing and reading such words pains me. I can understand grieving families lashing out at everyone and anyone to try and deal with the trauma that they have just suffered.
But armchair commentators and YouTube conspiracy theorists criticising firefighters when they have never been rescued by a firefighter, or known one, is cheap.
“We normally tell people to stay where they are until we reach them,” Kevin once told me. “If they try to escape, they can die of smoke inhalation or fall to their deaths through floors weakened by the fire.”
Firefighters are human beings. In the split seconds they have to make snap life-and-death decisions, they can sometimes make the wrong decisions. Those errors haunt them.
One only has to see the images of firefighters sitting outside the Grenfell Tower crying their eyes out, to see whether they are unemotional robots or real people with real feelings for the people that they are trying to save.
To somehow suggest that the Grenfell firefighters told families to stay in their homes because they wanted them to burn to death is unbefitting of any person who has any sense of dignity or honour.
Later on the same day as the Grenfell fire, I visited the scene. The first thing I saw was dozens of fire engines, around which firefighters were sitting, on the floor, eating food that locals had brought for them. Empty pizza boxes, Tesco sandwiches and lots and lots of water bottles.
While the rest of us were talking about the tragedy and apportioning blame, these heroes had been walking up dozens of flights of stairs wearing 15kg of uniform and carrying 20kg or more of equipment.
Some of them even took off their breathing apparatus, against orders from their superiors, so that they could move quicker through the building and save more people.
Why did they do this? For a £400 a week starting salary already threatened by Government austerity cuts? Or because they wanted to save the lives of strangers?
During the last week of Ramadan, I received an amazing WhatsApp message . A group of young Muslim women in south London came up with the idea for Muslims everywhere in the UK to deliver a hamper of food to their local fire stations with a thank you note.
In the suggested thank you note was a reference to the Quranic verse: “And whoever saved a life, it is as if he saved the whole of mankind.” [Quran 5:32]
They named the project Love4Legends. Rightly so.
The response from the firefighters has been phenomenal. In some cases, the families delivering the hampers have been invited into the stations for up to two hours, children sitting in the fire engines, etc.
Some of the firefighters have been reduced to tears at this touching gesture. Understandably so. When things go wrong, everyone blames them. Why should anyone thank them?
A close friend who is a consultant doctor recently told me, “When tragedy strikes, police secure the outer cordon, ambulances go through to collect the injured for us, but the real heroes who are on the front line and put their lives at risk to save the lives of others, are the firefighters.
So if you don’t wish to support a project like Love4Legends to thank firefighters, at least have the decency not to blame or criticise these heroes when someone dies in a fire.
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My story and why I was prison can be read here.