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By Lora Jones
Business reporter, BBC News

Image source, Elsie Emery
Image caption,

There are several different routes in to a career as a firefighter

Throughout the pandemic, working lives have been upended. Job losses, home-schooling, overtime hours, or a non-existent commute to the kitchen table – few people have been unaffected.

It’s clear these changes have led some to rethink their career paths entirely. Almost a quarter of 6,000 workers, surveyed by recruitment firm Randstad UK, were planning to change jobs in the next few months.

A fresh job search might raise some big questions: What do I enjoy? What do I need to live comfortably? Is work working for me?

This is the first article in a new series called ‘At Work’ about how different people find purpose in their daily work.

One of them is firefighter, Elsie Emery.

How did you get into the job?

I applied when I was 17, and turned 18 during the recruitment process.

I always knew that I wanted to be in the emergency services of some sort and was lucky that for the first time in nine years, the fire service was recruiting locally. So I was very lucky with the timings.

You don’t need any particular qualification, but you have to pass online tests in Maths, English, mechanical reasoning, situational judgement and behavioural science before you get to go to your fitness assessment. Getting to Level 8.8 on a bleep test is not a joke! You have to be able to swim 50 metres in 70 seconds too to prove you’re competent in water and you have to maintain these fitness levels throughout your career.

After that, you go to a practical assessment day with five different tests where you use all the different kit; simulate putting a ladder back on a truck, climbing a ladder, as well as doing things like taking your equipment apart and putting it back together – stuff you’ve never seen in your life.

Then the interview and presentation came at a later date and the whole process itself takes about six to nine months.

When fire services recruit, there’s an inundation of people that want to go for it. In my particular round there were about 3,000 people for 15 jobs, so they needed to whittle it down. My parents were absolutely ecstatic when they found out I got the job.

Routes into firefighting:

College course: Complete Level 2, or 3, Diploma in Public Services, before applying to the fire service, although this is not essential.

Apprenticeship: You may be able to start training on an operational firefighter advanced apprenticeship. You’ll need to be employed by a fire service to do this.

Apply direct: You can apply to your local fire service, each one sets its own entry requirements.

Fire service training course or volunteering: You can prepare for your application by volunteering, or doing a Level 2 Certificate in Fire and Rescue Services in the Community, which is usually run by local services.

What does a typical day look like?

No day is the same. Every time you go in there’s something different or you can easily get held up on a visit [to a business].

[Every shift] we do a handover from the previous night or day shift, so we know what we need to follow up on.

We do a lot of equipment checks on the vehicles and our breathing apparatus, to make sure they’re operational-ready. All our training needs to be maintained, so we know what to do at an incident. We might do a simulated rescue, or go out in the yard and cut a car for collision training.

Image source, Elsie Emery
Image caption,

Training needs to be regularly updated and can involve simulating rescues

On top of that, we do a lot of physical training. We’ve got a gym [at the] station to keep our strength up and do circuits.

And we do a lot of community visits – go out to vulnerable people in the community to prevent fires through education, set out evacuation plans, or, put up smoke detectors for them and run through fire safety stuff. We also do school visits so the kids can sit in the truck and go out to a lot of businesses too and do mini-audits on them.

Obviously, you also respond to incidents that come up. They can go on for a long time, 24 hours even.

How do people react when you tell them what you do?

It’s weird, I dread telling people what I do. I cringe a little bit.

The common reaction is: ‘Oh wow!’, people are usually taken aback and aren’t necessarily expecting it because of a lack of females in the role.

7.5% of firefighters are women. Number of firefighters by gender in England as of 31 March 2021.  .

I remember once, pulling up to a roundabout in the truck and the window was down because it was a hot summer’s day. A guy in the van next to me wound his down and shouted: “Oh my gosh, I’ve never seen a woman one.”

I do get comments, but they are mostly positive – or they make me laugh.

What are the biggest misconceptions?

It’s not all about saving cats in trees!

People do assume that we’re out every hour of the day responding to incidents, or we’re having a cup of tea waiting for a call.

There has been very little time where I’ve just sat around. And it’s not as dramatic as in the films either. If we have a spare moment, we’re doing business safety work, or we’re out in the community.

The push is on [fire] prevention now. So the work we do in the community around us probably makes up about 80% of our time on-shift, but that’s not really seen.

What are the hardest moments you face?

We do see unpleasant scenes and fatalities – that is, without a doubt, the hardest part of the job.

Day-to-day, it’s odd but you almost want to have an incident of some sort – not where anyone’s hurt – but because that’s what you joined to do. I joined to be there in the moment and help people, whether that’s putting up a smoke alarm or helping shift flood water from someone’s house.

But when there are family members nearby and you need to support them during an incident – that is really challenging.

And for every hard moment, there are good ones.

Image source, Elsie Emery
Image caption,

Returning from a difficult incident the team are encouraged to talk about how they responded and what they saw

Coming back from a difficult incident, we’re always greeted within an hour by a ‘diffusing officer’. The truck from that incident [then] comes ‘off the run’.

The biscuits come out and we go around the room and talk about what we saw, if anything in particular stood out. It helps us to piece together what we did as a team and put it in neat, tidy piles in your brain before you go to sleep – reducing the impact of any post-traumatic shock disorder (PTSD) because of that discussion.

We go through a lot together, so we have a really strong bond. And now if I move house I’ve got five blokes to help.

What would you change about the job?

The only thing I might say would be the training. [I’d like to have] more adaptability to train at different venues.

I think that’s important because we can do as many drills as we like in the back yard, but having the chance to train in different conditions would be beneficial.

But in the job itself? Absolutely nothing. The team are basically my second family.

Image source, Elsie Emery
Image caption,

Firefighter Elsie Emery with her team

We’re kept busy and all the jobs we’re given are satisfying. We’re constantly on training courses, always learning about things like blue light training, abseiling off a building or floating down the River Dart.

I can’t even say I think we need more time off, because we get four days off a week!

Any unexpected quirks?

Usually the weirdest stories come from people getting stuck in things.

We get called out to a lot of children getting stuck in babies’ swings. They might brag to a friend saying they can still fit in there, and we then get called in to cut them out.

There have been a few stories about bath plug holes too… but I’ll leave that to the imagination!

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

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