In a previous life, I worked for Kent Fire and Rescue Service (KFRS) and part of my role was to run the Press Office. For me and my team that meant being on call a week at a time but as Head of Department I could never really switch off outside working hours as major incidents required all hands on deck.
The chilling scenes we all witnessed via our social media streams and on TV as Grenfell Tower burned, reminded me of several terrible events I had to deal with during my time with the KFRS. Now, obviously, I’m not going to be so vulgar as to link a blog to the unimaginable suffering those families have/are going through, but this story did make me reflect on how some things never seem to change – unfortunately.
Twelve years ago, as part of my job, I ran a campaign with the help of a local marketing agency trying to increase understanding of sprinkler systems and why they were so important. At the time, this campaign got some traction but it never really got the national attention because, and this is horrible thing to report, there was no large-scale tragedy to push people into investing the money. I see again, following the Grenfell disaster, Dave Curry, chief officer of Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, has called for the fitting of sprinkler systems in high-rise buildings, although, as the article notes, similar requests by coroners in 2010, following a tower block fire in Southampton in which two firefighters were killed, were ignored.
Seeing the evidence of the destructive ability of fire up close, and then seeing the positive effect a sprinkler system can have, meant that I not only campaigned for sprinkler systems, I even had a system fitted when I had a new home built in Nutley. Luckily, we never needed to use it but it gave us peace of mind to know it was there to help slow the spread of any fire.
With many years of senior experience of dealing with the aftermath of terrible events like this, I did actually reach-out to the London Fire Brigade, offering my assistance. I know from experience how professional and organised their PR department is, but I also know how relentless that job can be during a tragedy.
My first experience happened a week or so after I started working for KFRS. What made it all the more difficult was the fact it didn’t happen on land but at sea - a cargo ship collided with a cruise liner. Obviously, geography meant that information was fairly controlled, people couldn’t just walk about to the scene of the accident, and so KFRS was one of the main sources of news and updates. Such a story, with the potential for loss of life and disruption to other cross-channel services, did gain a fair amount of journalistic interest and that meant I dealt with calls from journalists at all hours of the day and night.
A baptism of fire, like that, was probably a good way to start, although I’m not sure I thought so at the time. Working for an emergency service means you are, inevitably, working on some pretty distressing stories. I think I lost count of the number of times we had to report on tragic house fires. In addition, I had to help reporters with stories covering severe flooding and perhaps the worst stories, in terms of the press, incidents in the Channel Tunnel, for which KFRS is partly responsible with their French counterparts.
The potential for disaster was first seen in 1996, when a lorry being moved on a heavy-goods vehicle transporter, causing £200 million of damage. A similar incident in 2008, also on a heavy-goods vehicle transporter, saw the fire rage for 16 hours, reaching temperatures of 1000 degrees centigrade. In this case the cost of repair was 60 million Euros but the time taken for the repairs to happen caused massive amounts of disruption. Luckily, in both cases, no one died, although the damage was extensive.
What I remember most about these stories, from a professional point of view, was just how relentless the calls from journalists could be – I was getting calls twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week during really difficult stories. As you will be able to see from the coverage of Grenfell Tower, the story doesn’t go away and when the initial facts have been covered, there are always the different angles that journalists can find, such as conspiracies. With events that affect large groups of people, there are always people who are angry and/or fear there is something underhand going on, and journalists will often exploit this for a different angle on the same story. For the PR person working for the emergency services, every enquiry has to be carefully answered and this all takes time.
My memories of working for KFRS are positive, despite the inevitable horror of some of the stories – and I was only seeing them second or third hand. The work of the firefighters was truly inspiring. Their commitment to the job, as we saw again at Grenfell Tower – going in as others were running away – is something you must admire.
I, therefore, don’t think I should end on a negative story and luckily enough the London Fire Brigade has furnished me with an ‘upbeat story’ – on June 20, 2017, London firefighters helped deliver a baby by the side of the road in South-east London.
All credit to the firefighters and other staff who were involved with the Grenfell Tower incident for doing what you did and helping so many people in such terrifying and dangerous circumstances.