AS a teenage boy in 1993, I watched, in horror, the news of Stephen Lawrence’s tragic death. Just four years my senior and killed in cold blood, simply for the colour of his skin.
From a very young age, I had never understood those who judge people on the colour of their skin and I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to challenge, fight and educate against racism.
Some 15 years later, I proudly pulled on my kit for the first time, as a newly qualified firefighter and soon became active with the Fire Brigades Union campaigning against discrimination both inside and outside the service.
Now, with a dozen years of experience behind me, I am prouder than ever of the work done by my sisters and brothers in the service. For most of us we reconcile our personal sacrifices with the good that we have done but, in some tragic cases, it has led to the lifesavers themselves taking their own lives, overwhelmed by the many traumas they have experienced.
Wednesday, June 14, 2017, will forever be etched in my memory, as it is for any firefighter. We awoke to the unfolding news story, the worst of news stories, and with tears in our eyes immediately understood, far better than the average viewer, what the residents of Grenfell and those poor firefighters had experienced that fateful night.
I’ve visited and walked in harrowing, yet powerful, silence with the incredible Grenfell community who continue to walk with great dignity each and every month seeking justice for their loved ones.
I’ve spoken with some of those firefighters that attended that “job”, the one we all dread. I’ve listened to the control operators who, unsighted, tried in vain to keep those people safe and I’ve seen them break down recalling how they shared the terrifying last moments of so many lives.
At the scene, safety measures were abandoned and every firefighter worked tirelessly way beyond the call of duty in intolerable risk and, to most, unimaginably arduous conditions to enter and re-enter, time and again, to ascend 23 stories into this inferno. How could they stop while people were fighting for their lives? It is a miracle, but scant consolation, that no firefighter was lost in the process.
Racism does exist within the fire service, just as it does in all sections of society. Of that there can be no doubt and I don’t shy away from admitting it. What is in no doubt whatsoever, though, is that once those bells sound and the blue lights flash there’s a reason we say “fire doesn’t discriminate, and neither do we”. Skin has no colour when shrouded in smoke, skin has no colour over a telephone line and skin has no colour concealed in the wreckage of a mangled car.
In all my time as a firefighter, I have never seen nor heard of anything but total professionalism and utter dedication to human life regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation, class, race or any other characteristic.
Two weeks ago brought a different kind of horror, totally unexpected and from someone I had a deep respect for. Here was Doreen Lawrence suggesting that firefighters didn’t do everything they could to save the victims of Grenfell and that, had it been a block full of white residents, we would have tried harder. As my raw tweet put it, it was “the worst of insults”.
Ms Lawrence was partly correct to mention race. Race is a factor in deprivation, you’re more likely to be forced into deprivation as a person of colour, you will have less opportunities, greater discrimination, less secure work and lower pay. It also follows, of course, that you will end up with lower quality housing.
However, where Ms Lawrence could not have been further from the truth is that the response from the fire service was somehow less due to race. To begin with, fire cover and the speed and weight of response are determined by assessed risk, response and activity levels.
Where there is deprivation, the risk is deemed greater, and the activity levels are higher, so it follows that the level of fire cover and speed of response will be greater, not less. Once on scene, as I have said, I do not know of a single firefighter who would pause for a moment to consider someone’s personal characteristics before risking their own life to save another. It is the single most humbling thing about my profession.
So when she made these ill-judged, ignorant and offensive comments she was wrong. Ms Lawrence would do well to reflect on and withdraw her hurtful comments, apologise and offer her solidarity to those who risked everything that terrible night and have sacrificed so much as a result of it.
Dave Gillian is chair of the West Yorkshire Fire Brigades Union.