An hour with Ray Constant, Watch Commander at Royston Fire Station reveals much about what has kept him in the fire service for the past 24 years, the last five based in Royston.
A guided tour around the fire station reveals a comfortable but professional setup – with a mess deck where the crew gather and eat, a room for relaxation with TV and a fish tank, and a gym – important for sustaining fitness. “We have to keep fit.” says Ray “Every year we have tests in April and October. The tests are the same for all ages, men and women. If you fail the tests, you’ll get support to put things right but, if you don’t pass them, you can remain in the service but can’t go out on shouts [callouts].”
Ray’s use of the phrase ‘mess deck’ – a naval term – reflects an interesting parallel between language used by those in the navy and the fire service. I learn that connection began in the late 1800s when ex-sailors were often recruited as firefighters for the early city brigades due to their discipline, physical fitness, and skills at working at height. The naval link still resonates today with fire service terms such as ‘watch’ ‘crew’, ‘line’ (a rope) harking back to sea-faring days.
I observe that it feels very much like an extended family; living and working together. Ray confirms the importance of relationships, built on mutual trust, that need to develop between firefighters. “The teamwork here is immense. You have to rely on your colleague when you go into a burning building – your life is in their hands, and theirs is in yours. When I send crews to a job I need to know the risks, but when I’m back at base they are my eyes and ears.”
I ask about the dangers of firefighting. “It’s always risky, but we’re trained to know at what point the job is becoming dangerous – we’re very strict when it comes to safety. If I’m asking someone to do something dangerous, that wrong – and I’ve told my crew to question it.”
I’m interested to know about the make-up of the Royston team and Ray gives a breakdown. “We currently have 11 whole-time firefighters and the same number are retained and on-call. I’m one of two Watch Commanders – my opposite number is female [one of three women based in Royston], we have two Crew Commanders, a Station Commander overseeing Royston and Hitchin, and the rest are firefighters. At any one time a Watch or Crew Commander will be in charge. All firefighters are expected to live or work within four minutes of the fire station. If an engine has a driver, an officer in charge and at least two in the back it goes out – that’s the bottom line.”
As if on cue for a real-life practical demonstration of the theory, a loud siren goes off as a call comes in and firefighters appear from all directions. A deer is stuck in railings in Meldreth and, within minutes, an engine is despatched. The nature of the callout – involving an animal – raises the issue about what risks should be taken to save an animal. Ray is pragmatic “The nature of where we live means we have experience of dealing with trapped animals. We’ll assess the situation on arrival – we won’t put people’s lives in danger but if the RSPCA can’t get to it, we’ll do our best.”
The ‘animal rescue shout’ contrasts sharply when Royston Fire Station assisted with more conventional firefighting duties the previous week. On July 10, the Royston crew were one of 18 – a total of around 75 firefighters and 15 fire engines from across Hertfordshire – tackling a late-night blaze at the Warner Bros Studios in Leavesden near Watford. Two weeks later, about 40 firefighters from Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire were called to a stubble blaze in a field near Guilden Morden, highlighting the seasonal risk posed by the hot and dry summer weather.
Back on our tour of the Royston Fire Station we move outside into the yard, where the dominating feature is the five-storey tower for training in the use of ladders and firefighting at height. Ray explains that sometimes the tower is used for ‘salvage drills’ – when water in pumped into the top of the tower and crews work to keep the ground floor dry.
Salvage – saving the most valuable items from fire and water damage – is an increasingly important part of 21st century firefighting (as those connected with Royston Parish Church will no doubt testify). Ray explains that sometimes he and his crew go into a building with a list of valuables to be saved if possible – all done as part of an ‘add-on service’ beyond saving lives and the buildings themselves.
Also in the yard are half-cut and crumpled cars – demonstration models used for training and putting equipment to the test, as well as for public education. As Ray explains… “We’re going to more and more RTCs [Road Traffic Collisions]. What we do with young adults who have just started driving, is to invite them to be cut out of a car. We cut around them and see their faces turn from ‘this is fun’ to realising it’s all a bit serious. It gives them a perception of how vulnerable they are as new drivers.”
From the young people being rescued from car crashes to those considering a career in being their rescuers. It’s pleasing to know there’s growing interest from firefighters of tomorrow – the cadets – particularly from females (over 50% of the current crop, if names by hooks in the fire station are an accurate indicator). Ray is clearly proud of their success in inspiring young people… “Our cadets are aged 13 – 17 and once they join they usually stay. They can do their Duke of Edinburgh Awards with us and get outward bound experience. They’re not only learning about fire-fighting, they’re gaining other skills like map reading.”
I ask Ray about changes in his 24 years with the fire service. “What’s really changed is being more proactive about fire prevention and personal safety through schools’ projects, firework presentations [contrary to common belief, bonfire night is often quite quiet] and open days. Increasingly popular community events at Halloween and Christmas are another chance to get the fire safety message across to people of all ages.”
I end our conversation by asking Ray for his top safety tip; he has no hesitation. “Get a smoke alarm – it’s not just an early warning, it’s your only warning. More than ten years ago we started offering free smoke alarms and fire safety checks in the home – lasting around 15 minutes. They’re still on offer – people say they’re too busy or don’t want to take up our time, but we’re happy to come – to know that person is going to be safer.”
If you’re interested in a career as a firefighter, the application process has just opened. Apply online at www.hertfordshire.gov.uk/beafirefighter
Written by Chris Lee
Photo Credit: David Waters