Fire Chief: An Honour To Serve My Country

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Anyone thinking of making fire-fighting a career choice must be willing to learn, and more importantly, be prepared to give of their service to their country.

No longer is the job characterised by simple bush and grass fires, but now requires those who enter its ranks to be well-rounded academically, technologically and physically.

No one knows this better than retiring Chief Fire Officer at the Barbados Fire Service (BFS), Wilfred Marshall, as he reflected on how the profession has evolved since he joined in 1975.

Officially retiring in January, Marshall is of the view that the selection process for the Fire Service needs to be broadened and deepened.

???The new fire fighter would not face the same type of challenges that I would have faced in 1975. The new fire fighter would be dealing with photovoltaic systems, as homes and businesses are now being fuelled by different types of electricity,??? he said.

Gone now are the days when fire fighters would arrive at a structural fire and have the assurance that the electricity was disconnected at their request. In today???s world, and with the advent of solar energy, fire officers are sometimes unsure as to whether or not the building is being charged, or if there are photovoltaic systems in place.

Similar challenges also exist when responding to vehicular fires, as some are also fuelled by electricity. ???Those are the challenges the new fire fighter will be faced with; it will not be cane fires and grass fires,??? Mr. Marshall stated.

As a result, he stressed that it was important to look for persons who could be trained in various areas and manage the risks which they would confront.??However, Mr. Marshall noted that a key element in the selection process for the BFS must be a willingness to serve their country.

???To me that is basic. If you come to the Fire Service and you are not interested in serving the people, you will not enjoy it because that is exactly what you will find yourself doing on a daily basis.

“There are times when you want to say ???no???, but if you see the person on the other side suffering you have to forget yourself and think of the other person. That is the basis of what we do in the Fire Service,??? he asserted.

It was that burning desire to serve his country that saw the out-going Fire Chief seeking out a career in the military or emergency services where he could give back to Barbados.

But the choices were few ??? the Royal Barbados Police Force, the Barbados Defence Force or the BFS. He opted to join the ranks of the BFS on February 1, 1975, at the age of 18, where he was moulded, groomed and trained to serve his country.

???I didn???t think I was cut out to be either a policeman or a solider. I could have given service there, but when I looked at what was required I didn???t think I had the drive in me to be a police officer; and I didn???t have the drive to be a soldier??? but I thought I could deal with fire and I selected what I thought would have been the easier one,??? Mr. Marshall reminisced.

And so for 39 years, Mr. Marshall responded to calls for help, braving extreme heat, falling debris, life threatening situations and uncertain moments, all in the name of service to country.

As he prepares to extinguish the flames on what he described as a rewarding career, the Fire Chief recalled his first fire being a ???little grass fire???, while one of the first major ones he responded to was a fire at the YMPC and another that destroyed the buildings at the corner of Westbury Road. ???Those were my honeymoon from the training school,??? he recounted.

Fresh out of training school and wanting to prove himself capable, Mr. Marshall recalled refusing to admit he could not move the London branch (a piece of fire-fighting equipment) by himself. Luckily his co-workers noticed his distress and came to his assistance.

Meanwhile, at the Westbury fire, the Fire Chief recalled overlooking the risks and dangers in an effort to get as close to the fire as possible, only to be hauled to safety by one of his seniors seconds before a wall collapsed.

Despite the near misses and a few scrapes along the way, Mr. Marshall soldiered on, and later discovered that the requirements of the job would become even more technical as the nature of the fires changed. Soon, the occasional house and grass fires were replaced by larger fires like those at the Sheraton Mall, Julie???N Supermarket and Glendairy Prison.

???These were major fires that had an element of risk. It was not just a case of standing up and trying to water a fire. There were instances where young officers at the Sheraton fire were inside the burning building with things dropping all around them. They went in just to ensure they could take out pockets of fire that was posing a challenge to us,??? he said.

The psychological impact of a fire is also one which a fireman has to endure in his service to country. Mr. Marshall said he encountered this first-hand during the Glendairy Prison fire, having recently joined the senior ranks.

???In the early stages, prisoners were running around and you were unsure of what was happening. We had a job to do to [and that was to] extinguish the fire. We couldn???t focus on the bedlam that was out there. That posed a psychological challenge, dealing with fire and still looking over your shoulder at what is happening behind you,??? he recounted.

Recognising that the nature of the job was changing, and to further develop the BFS, the Fire Prevention Unit, the Research and Development Unit and an Information Technology Unit were established to meet the new demands. Mr. Marshall noted that the BFS??? long term vision was to be seen as a very efficient professional unit within the Caribbean area.

Looking back at his service to country, Mr. Marshall admitted to having some regrets. One of those is his initial views towards opening the door to female fire officers.

???I was one of those opposed to females coming to the fire service. When it was announced that they were making room for females in 1979, I was saying I didn???t think they would fit in based on what we did. At that time it was more physical. I didn???t see how they would fit in, climb ladders, and pull hoses,??? he confessed.

However, the Fire Chief readily admits his embarrassment at his initial views, noting that he has since bragged about how proud he was of the female officers at the BFS, some of whom hold positions where they lead men into battle.

Now, as he prepares to hang up his hat and enjoy his retirement with his wife, three adult children and granddaughter, Mr. Marshall has joined with those expressing concern over the recent trends, particularly surrounding house fires, in Barbados.

???People are of the belief that they are masters of the fire and that they can do anything, and when the fire starts that they can take care of it??? We take chances believing that if something was to happen we could deal with it,??? Mr. Marshall noted.

However, he stressed that messages advising against children playing with matches, leaving irons and other electrical equipment plugged in or stoves unattended, were constantly being given, and should therefore be taken seriously.

Despite this, however, he noted that the BFS had earned and maintained a reputation of providing a good and efficient fire service to the public. ???I am satisfied because they [fire officers] give their all when they come out there,??? he concluded.

julia.rawlins-bentham@barbados.gov.bb

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