I hit a blind man

I recently watched a television programme, a documentary on exploring the mind. This particular episode was investigating  if people are born with emotions or if they are something we learn through life’s experiences. At one point in the programme, the presenter underwent a test at a medical university which involved completing a questionnaire about himself prior to undergoing a MRI scan while exposed to various stimuli. The presenter paused on one particular question which he read aloud. The question asked if he would feel empathy with someone else who had injured themselves. It is a question I suspect most of us would answer yes to, in my mind that is what I answered. An instant later, I suddenly realised that to me the question was completely ambiguous and dependent on circumstances at the time, circumstances to which I could equally and truthfully both answer either yes or no to the question.

Although this may seem a strange contradiction, to me it is completely logical. As a firefighter I experienced many occasions when a stranger to me was injured and needed medical attention. Until such time as medical help arrives, part of the firefighters role is to treat individuals administering first aid where necessary. There is an actual priority list laid down in which order our duties should be carried out. The prime duty is to save life, followed by saving property and finally rendering such humanitarian services as possible.

When I found myself in either a life saving situation or one that required urgent medical attention I know I experienced no immediate empathy with the individual in trouble. Instead I always found my mind was crystal clear and focused on the task in hand with no room for any form of emotion. Be that right or wrong, it’s the way I have found I naturally work. If however a work colleague suffered an injury not at an incident but at the station, something like a sprained ankle or a cut finger then I would feel complete empathy with them.

It was while briefly dwelling on this point in my mind that I suddenly recalled an unusual incident I went to that I had completely forgotten about. Although I cannot remember exactly when this incident occurred, I suspect it was in the 1970’s. We received a call to a fire in a house on the Plaistow/Canning Town borders. The house was a terraced property with the kitchen located at the back of the house  and which was well  alight. Voluminous smoke generated by the fire billowed out the open front door.  As we arrived some occupants of the property standing in the street shrieked out there was a disabled elderly man in bed in the front upstairs bedroom. The occupants also cried out that he was both blind and deaf. I cannot recall if he was dumb too.  As an automatic response to our training, a colleague and I quickly donned breathing apparatus sets and made our way into the building. In this particular building, the front door led to a small hallway blocked at the end by the underside of a flight of stairs. To access the stairs it was necessary to enter the front room via a door off the hallway and then find the bottom of the stairs at the rear of the front room. The stairs were a peculiar design to save space in this small property. It was necessary to open a door that sealed off the entrance to the stairs. After about two steps, the stairs turned both a sharp and steep 90 degree bend to continue upwards. The width of the stairs was narrow giving a feeling of a steep upwards tunnel to the floor above.

As we groped through the smoke to find the door to the stairs we could see the flickering glow of the fire raging in the kitchen to our side. We could not see the fire due to the density of the smoke and as we were undertaking a rescue, the fire was not  the immediate concern of my colleague or I. Other members of the initial two crews that arrived would be dealing with that problem. We arrived on the upper hallway to find it smoke logged but  lighter than on the ground floor. Fortunately the door at the bottom of the stairs had kept much of the smoke from the upstairs of the house. As we entered the front bedroom I could see the elderly gentleman in pyjamas lying on his bed but writhing, obviously he could sense something was wrong. He certainly would have smelled the smoke. Although a lot of things were going on at the time, my mind always remains clear in such circumstances which I have always found useful for immediately evaluating and responding to rapidly changing circumstances. One thing I knew is that we were going to have great difficulty communicating to this elderly person who was both deaf and blind and undoubtedly confused by the unusual circumstances.

I grabbed his hand and placed it on my fire helmet hoping that would communicate some understanding that firefighters were in his bedroom. Unfortunately he became immediately agitated and clearly but not surprisingly his mind did not make the connection as to who we were. I called to my colleague to just grab him and stand him upright. In the urgency of the situation there was no time to continue  attempting further meaningful communication, one just has to do what one has to do and our priority was to get this elderly gentleman out of the building as quickly as possible. As we stood this gentleman upright he turned out to be surprisingly strong despite his frail looking condition. He instantly started to struggle and I suspect he would have thought we were burglars assaulting him. He could neither see or hear but he would have been fully aware that he was being manhandled by strangers. It was immediately clear we would not get him out the building with his ferocious struggling and without either of us saying a word to one another my colleague clamped his arms around the gentleman’s upper body pinning his arms to his side as I knocked him unconscious by a blow to his chin. In reflection the thought of what I did makes me shiver slightly but as I said, at the time one has to do what one has to do. It was clear that it would take a long time to get this struggling gentleman out of the building during which time he would be inhaling smoke and fumes. The same smoke and fumes did not allow an option of staying where we were. In his unconscious state it was quite easy to carry the gentlemen out of the house and straight to a waiting ambulance which had arrived while we were inside the building. I explained the reason for the gentleman’s unconscious state to the ambulance attendant which he fully understood. Fortunately the gentleman started to regain consciousness while we were still by the ambulance and a relative of his was also holding his hand. He clearly found the female relatives touch reassuring as he did not struggle again despite being in a strange environment. There must have been some way in which she touched him that must have communicated to him who she was.

The last I saw of this gentleman was the ambulance rapidly disappearing down the road on the way to hospital. I have little doubt that our actions while somewhat drastic due to circumstances,  probably saved the gentleman’s life. Smoke and fumes are rapid silent killers. The house however was not so fortunate. The kitchen was completely destroyed and once the fire was out and the rest of the house ventilated to clear the smoke all rooms in the house were deeply blackened due to smoke damage and as such uninhabitable. Google Street maps show that the entire area where this house once stood has been replaced by a swathe of social housing.

It’s strange how watching an unconnected television documentary can lead to triggering memories long since forgotten.

Stuck in a lift

The East End of London is well-known for its community spirit but I did go to one incident where I sadly  witnessed an immediate change in attitude by a few individuals to a fellow human being. Most people tend to think of firefighters dealing with fires as their title implies. There are however a whole range of incidents which are not fire related, many of these come under the heading of Special Services. Releasing people shut in lifts is one type of assistance rendered that comes under this heading and which firefighters are trained to deal with. There are many different lift makers all of with their own variations in the design of their lifts, yet all have to comply with a set of rigid safety standards.

The cinema loves to show disaster movies with lifts, (elevators), plunging at high-speed down a lift shaft. In reality one of the many safety features built into a lift are special quadrant shaped lift brakes that spring out and wedge the lift in the shaft if the speed of travel were ever to increase above a predetermined limit. This would happen in the very unlikely event of the lift cable breaking but the chances of that happening in the UK are remote.

Although I have been to many lift incidents in my career, too many to recall them all, with several calls a day not being uncommon, like many things in life, individual occasions remain embedded in my mind.

In the early 1970’s  We received a call to a lift incident about 8 am in the morning and on arrival at an apartment tower block we could hear the voice of a young boy calling out for help. For whatever reason the lift had stopped between the ground and first floor, no matter what buttons the boy pushed the lift refused to start again. It became clear from the boys calls the he was delivering the morning newspapers to  the various apartments when the lift stopped on the way down. He was clearly worried at being reprimanded by his school teacher as he was going to be late for school. A small crowd of residents had gathered in the lobby as they entered the building to use the lift. We did explain to them that once we managed to get the boy out of the lift we would have to turn the power off to stop anyone else getting stuck and it would remain like that until the lift engineer had the opportunity to inspect the lift. One of the disadvantages of living in a high-rise block that only has one lift is the long climb up the stairs to the top, particularly if people are no longer nimble as they were.

The first thing we attempted was to see if we could bring the lift back to the ground floor by using the Fireman’s Switch. Lifts have a special circuit built into them for fire brigade use. The switch is inside a locked box which firefighters carry a key to access. Once the switch is thrown, in normal operations the lift will do one of several things. All the floor buttons within the lift car and all the call buttons on the landings immediately become inoperable leaving the car occupants or those awaiting the arrival of the lift unable to do anything to its control its movement.

If the lift is going upwards it will continue to the next floor and stop. Without the doors opening, if will the go back down to the ground floor without stopping at any floor. If the lift is travelling downwards it will continue to do so until it reaches the ground. Once the lift reaches the ground floor, the doors open allowing the occupants to emerge and the lift buttons become operable again. The landing call buttons however remain dead. This allows the fire brigade to have complete control of the lift in the event of a fire. Unfortunately in this case, the lift still refused to move.

The second but much longer option which will always work entails some of the crew going to the floor above where the lift is stuck while the remainder of the crew go to the lift motor room. The motor room is normally located immediately above the lift shaft but can sometimes be located in a basement. These rooms are locked but the same key that allows access to the Fireman’s Switch also unlocks these rooms. All fire appliances carry special lift keys that are supplied by the various lift makers. These are normally long metal bars with special shapes to allow them to pass through similarly shape slots in the outer lift doors. These keys override the safety mechanism that keeps the outer landing doors closed when the lift is not there. With the outer door open it is also possible to call up the lift shaft to the members of the crew in the motor room. The motor room crew turn off the electrical supply to the motor and then use a lever which releases the brake stopping the cable drum to the lift from turning when the lift is not moving. As one firefighter releases the brake, others turn a wheel to either raise or lower the lift up and down by an inch or so at a time. It’s hard physical work.

Although many may think it would be easier to lower a lift downwards, the reverse is true. This is due to a series of heavy counterweights attached to the other end of the lift cables which are heavier than a fully occupied lift. This is the reason we originally went to the first floor. Once again we unfortunately struck another problem as the lift door on the first floor above the lift would not open. This meant we returned to the ground floor lobby and opened the outer door there. It would be much harder and slower for the crew in the motor room to wind the lift down but in this case we had no option. Once the lift door in the lobby was open we could hear the young lad more clearly. He was getting more anxious about being late for school but did not seem too worried about his current confinement. We kept reassuring him that there was no problem and the small crowd in the lobby also gave him calls of reassurance. The small crowd also talked amongst themselves how brave the young boy was.

Gradually inch by inch the lift car was lowered down the shaft until it was level with the ground floor and we operated a mechanical switch that allowed the inner door of the lift to open. As the door slid to one side revealing the boy, the sympathetic murmuring from the small crowd suddenly stopped. The boy despite his east end accent was not white and this instantly turned a few of the crowds sympathy into instant disdain. Hostile comments like “You broke our lift” and “Who said that you could use our lift?” were fired at the youngster. My officer-in-charge simply put a reassuring arm around the youngsters shoulder and with a Thank You to the group in a tone that really meant stand aside or else, he led the youngster out the building to where he had left his bicycle. He gave the youngster a pep talk and advised him he had done nothing wrong. He also gave him the fire stations private telephone number. This was in case his school queried his lateness, the fire station would confirm his story.

Some forty years have elapsed since this snapshot of a small cameo of life at that time occurred. On the positive side it was only a few individuals of the small crowd who instantly reversed their sympathetic values. Equally positive, I also think it unlikely if the same incident occurred today that similar unpleasant comments would be made. I do however remember feeling a little sad at the time at the blinkered view of those few individuals. I could not help but think how much of life they were missing due to their narrow view from self-imposed blinkers.

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