Sheffield firefighter recalls thirty years in the job

Fire feature, Station Manager Mark Wilkinson
Fire feature, Station Manager Mark Wilkinson

It was a baptism of fire for Mark Wilkinson on his first ever shift as a firefighter in Sheffield - after he was called out to rescue a man from a burning hotel room.

The rookie fire service recruit was on nights at Ringinglow fire station when the 999 call came in and he was called into action.

Fire feature, Station Manager Mark Wilkinson

Fire feature, Station Manager Mark Wilkinson

Mark, who had left the Royal Marines after over four years of service ‘to make a difference’, was met with a smoke-filled hotel bedroom and a seriously injured casualty, who had to be rushed to hospital.

The man had fallen asleep while smoking - setting his bedding alight and suffering serious burns as a consequence.

But instead of panicking and thinking twice about his new career, Mark said the dramatic rescue reinforced his decision to leave the forces and join the fire service.

“The only problem was from then I didn’t get many incident for six months after that first shift, so I was desperate to get to a busier station because I had joined to make a difference so I wanted to be busy,” he said.

Fire feature, Station Manager Mark Wilkinson

Fire feature, Station Manager Mark Wilkinson

Mark, who is now 53 and preparing to hang up his protective uniform for the final time this summer, has clocked up 30 years as a firefighter.

He got his chance to move to a busier station after two years in the job but admits that call-outs to fires are now the last thing he wants.

“When I first joined the fire service my boss, who was retiring, said he never wanted to get another fire call-out ever again and I now understand how he felt,” he said.

“Every single time you get called to a house fire you are met with upset - I have been to fires on Christmas Eve where families have lost everything, including their children’s presents. There have been some shocking scenes. It is devastating how much damage fire can cause - it is not just the flames, but the smoke gets everywhere and then there’s the water damage too.

Fire feature, firefighters from four stations take part in an exercise simulating a large traffic collision

Fire feature, firefighters from four stations take part in an exercise simulating a large traffic collision

“I have loved everything I have done and I would recommend the fire service to people wanting to make a difference but I never want to see another fire again.”

Mark, a dad-of-two with two grandchildren, who lives with his partner Rose, spent 18 years as a frontline firefighter before specialising in training others, which saw him complete a three year stint at the national Fire Service College training up incident commanders to take control of major incidents. He also spent time as a fire investigator looking into the causes of suspicious blazes.

Last week he oversaw a training exercise in which firefighters had to put their extrication skills to the test using a range of mangled cars, with road traffic collisions now forming a major part of the fire service’s workload.

With arson attacks reducing year on year and community safety work - including the fitting of free smoke alarms - thought to be responsible for a decline in house fires, firefighters are now trained up to deal with a wider range of incidents and hazardous substances than ever before. Water rescues, rope rescues, working at heights, animal rescues, chemical spillages and assisting the ambulance service in gaining entry to homes and dealing with obese patients are among the variety of incidents crews deal with.

Recalling his fire service career, Mark, now a station manager, said one of the most memorable incidents were the floods of 2007, which caused devastation to huge swathes of South Yorkshire.

Firefighters were called upon to help drain Ulley reservoir, which was at risk of breaching its dam and wiping out a power station serving most of Sheffield and destroying hundreds of homes.

“To say it was an interesting night is an understatement,” said Mark.

“The brigade was dealing with issues across the county, not least the threat that Ulley Reservoir posed, so it was a challenging time but all the emergency services pulled together and we got through it.”

Accepting that the role of a firefighter is fraught with danger, Mark admits firefighters put themselves ‘unselfishly’ at risk to save others but said the technology and equipment available to keep them safe is advancing year on year.

He remembers crawling on his hands and knees into a smoke-filled burning house to pull a casualty free while his colleagues were searching the upstairs of the property.

Mark had been outside the house but spotted a pair of feet in the kitchen and knew it was a race against time to rescue the casualty.

“I could see the smoke was almost to the floor, with just a small amount of space so me and a colleague covered our faces, crawled along the floor to drag him out. Sometimes you just have to do what you have to when a life is at risk,” he said. “But long gone are the days when we used to wear rubber trousers and did not have flash hoods or gloves - and you would come out of a fire with blisters on your ears.

“The technology available now is unbelievable - thermal imaging cameras and breathing apparatus fitted with GPS so that firefighters can be tracked inside burning buildings, it’s getting better and better all the time.

“But firefighters don’t just rely on technology, over the years you develop a sixth sense about danger.

“I remember once I was in an old steel foundry which was well involved in fire and my partners and I felt that something wasn’t right and made the decision to come out of the building...seconds later a three foot thick wall where we had been standing came down.”

Mark plans to spend his retirement volunteering at De Hood Boxing Club on Sheffield’s Manor estate.