On Saturday March 29, around 40 firefighters tackled a serious blaze at the Phoenix Theatre & Studio in Lewes. Although the building was seriously damaged beyond repair and all contents destroyed, no-one was injured and the flames were prevented from spreading. “Luckily the fire started early on”, fire crew manager Tim Cook told me. “If it had been later when the party was in full swing then there would have been a considerable loss of life.”
Tim and I had met a week earlier under much happier circumstances. I’d been invited to join a training exercise in Lewes. Was I interested? The biggest challenge was trying to wipe the stupid grin off my face. From Trumpton to Fireman Sam, from Hellfighters to Backdraft, I’ve been brought up with stories about the bravery and camaraderie of the fire service. I said “yes” quicker than a fireman could slide down a greasy pole.
Sadly there was no sign of a pole when I arrived at Lewes Community Fire Station. In fact, dealing with road accidents rather than fires is now the biggest part of the job. Meanwhile reorganisation and spending cuts are being discussed, as is relocation: plans for the North Street Quarter include demolition of the existing station. Yet a firm foundation remains amidst all this uncertainty. The need to respond effectively to any incident means there’s a lot of training.
I was kitted out in a protective suit with an 18kg oxygen tank on my back. The combined weight of suit, tank and boots made every movement harder work than usual. Breathing Apparatus Instructor Chris Beagley ensured I didn’t topple over backwards. “Being a firefighter is the best job in the world”, he said. “Every day you help someone. You see a lot of mucky stuff but you never stop helping people.” He went on to tell me about the local family whose lives had undoubtedly been saved by a smoke alarm he and his colleagues had fitted. I hope he can’t see my eyes misting up inside the oxygen mask.
Artificial smoke inside the training site means I literally can’t see my hand in front of my face. Some of the firefighters are also blindfolded to simulate a particularly bad fire. Two of them look for casualties whilst performing what appears to be a strange dance; keeping their weight on the back foot, stamping with their other foot and moving their arms in front of their face. It’s all about making sure the floor is solid and checking for obstructions ahead. They locate a dummy on the ground despite being able to see absolutely nothing. My eyes start misting up again.
And now it’s my turn to be blindfolded. I’m attached to a guide line and begin to make my way up a flight of stairs. I’d walked up these steps just a few minutes ago but this time I’m completely disorientated. Everything feels as though I’m in a dream. I can’t even find my way out of the building when Tim removes the blindfold. Heaven knows how anyone copes when there’s a real fire.
First published in Viva Lewes magazine issue 92 May 2014.