clivejanice190Imagine it’s 3am and you’ve just lost everything you own in a house fire. Everyone is safe but the children are cold and you have nowhere to go. Listen to a couple of the incredible volunteers who turn up to help their neighbours cope with crises at any time, day or night.

Fire and emergency support in Belfast


Katrina Crew: Fires. Floods. Mass evacuations. A phone call saying a loved one’s had an accident. They’re the events no family ever wants to experience. How do you cope if you’ve lost all your possessions in the middle of the night? Or you’re standing on the side of the motorway hoping the emergency services will tell you your child survived a car crash?

I’m Katrina Crew, and I’ve spent some time talking to volunteers with the Red Cross’ fire and emergency support service, or FESS. They’re people like Clive and Janice Hamilton in Belfast, who have been turning up to help families cope with crises like these since 1999.

Janice Hamilton: Some of the incidents we’ve had recently, we had a teenager who drowned and we were able to go and assist the family. These kinds of incidents are quite difficult, I find, emotionally very difficult. You’re trying to deal with the family, you’re trying to deal with their mixed emotions of what’s going on, and really you can’t help but have your own emotions about what’s going on, too. But really it’s nice to be there and be a support to them.

Clive Hamilton: Just to go to the opposite scale to what Janice has said, obviously the bigger calls stick with me as well, but probably my first fire call, and I know I speak for the rest of the volunteers when I say this, everybody remembers their first incident. But another incident I attended after that, it was a cottage fire down in County Tyrone. It was an old lady, well into her 90s, she lived in the same cottage all her life, and she lost all her pets in that fire. But all she could think about was the volunteers who turned up, even though we were there to assist her. But she was able to put others before herself in that situation, and she didn’t deem herself worthy of any assistance. To me that shows humanity, how you can put others before yourself in a crisis, which is what a volunteer’s about as well.

Katrina: Clive explains what happens from the time the emergency services receive a 999 call.

Clive: When the fire service show up at the incident, they assess the situation, and if FESS are required at the incident – should it be domestic house fire, flood, or bigger incident – they will request ourselves through Fire Service Regional Control Centre. Volunteers are paged from the control centre. From the time of call, we have 20 minutes to half an hour to respond and have the vehicle mobile to the incident. We don’t really know what we’re going to until we arrive at the fire station. As I say, we would normally turn out with a crew of three, possibly four, depending on the type of incident we may take more. On arrival at the incident, and it can be anywhere within a 50 mile radius of the fire station, we turn up at the incident. We take our guidance from the senior fire officer in charge of the incident. Sometimes the police would be in charge of the incident. We take guidance from them.

Katrina: Clive and Janice, and the other FESS volunteers, have been part of countless people’s lives, showing up at their doorstep at the moment they’re most needed. They provide a shoulder to lean on – without pay, at all hours of the day or night, without expectation of being recognised for their incredible work.

But there’s also another very important member of the team: the FESS vehicle.

Clive: The FESS vehicle would be a customised, purpose-built motorhome. The vehicle we have at present is a Fiat vehicle. We have divided the vehicle into three specific areas. The first area would be for our own crew members. In that area, we would have briefings, debriefs, plan our actions for a call, do map reading there to get to the incident and also as our own quiet area. The second part of the vehicle would be a feeding area for the crews and for the occupiers of the houses who’ve come onto the vehicle. A toilet area and also a washing area. The rear part of the vehicle would probably be the most used by the members of the public. That’s the quiet area, private area, which can be cordoned off by ourselves as well. It’s a private area where we can work with people on a one-to-one basis, trying to contact relatives, contact insurance companies, signpost families to further help. Also to distribute clothing, toileting packs, also can be used for interviews with police. Also to bring other family members, sometimes members of the clergy on board, should it be a fatal incident. And also as a rest area for our own crews, for emergency services also. On the vehicle, we carry a wide range of items. Replacement clothing for adults and children. We also have our own personal protective equipment, our catering equipment. We have a section designed just for children, ranging from teddy bears to books to small games, just to distract the children from the situation, and also to replace any clothes, etc, which may have been destroyed in the fire. Basically, it’s a temporary shelter and a form of transport for anyone affected by a trauma.

Katrina: One of the most important aspects of the service is the support it gives the statutory emergency services. Norman McKinley, the Red Cross’ operations director in Northern Ireland, explains.

Norman: Our job is to fill in the gaps. At times when emergencies are happening, the emergency services will be in full swing, responding to the crisis. The role of the Red Cross is to come in behind the emergency services and agree what needs done when, and to do it to the very best of our ability. When they’re particularly stretched, it’s great to know that our skilled and trained volunteers will be able to turn up to do their bit to ease the burden of people who find themselves in real points of crisis. I’m delighted that we’ve now got three vehicles across Northern Ireland and we can do so many wonderful things by supporting councils, by supporting the fire service, by supporting the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and we can really make a difference at a local level by using skilled and trained volunteers from their own areas.

Katrina: The Red Cross has formal agreements with the statutory emergency services around the UK, but sometimes it’s the first responders themselves who need a bit of help.

Janice: We also have turned out to RTAs, road traffic accidents. One in particular actually does stick out in my mind, was one I done with Clive and another colleague a few years back where there was a fatality, two fatalities actually had gone into a tree. What really sticks in my mind with that was the brigade members. Before they went down to go anywhere near the car, they were so different. And it just made me see how human they really are. And that’s not the side everybody sees. They think: “Oh, they just go do their job.” Yes, they do go do their job, but they’re human too, and that made me sort of see things in a different light as well. The brigade members came into the vehicle and they were able to . . . we give them refreshments, we give them support, we give them emotional support. Sometimes that was just sitting and being quiet in the corner, or sometimes they wanted to talk about what they’d seen, and that’s what we’re there for, is to help them out, give them a cup of tea or be there for them and speak to them and listen if they need it.

Katrina: Even though volunteers don’t do it for recognition, Janice and Clive have found the experience very rewarding, and sometimes very challenging.

Janice: You do get an awful lot out of it. You do get a lot of satisfaction that you’ve been able to go out and help someone else. And most of the people that we do go out to help are very grateful for what we do. In my opinion, one of the worst things is that sometimes it can be just …there are weeks that you can have so many calls, and your body tells you you’ve had enough. To me it’s a worthwhile thing to do, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Clive: For myself, the best thing about being a FESS volunteer is being able to put something back into the community which you’ve taken out of it over the years. And also, to see a result at the end of a call, where you have made a difference to somebody’s life, even should it be a small section of your time can make a big difference to somebody’s future. The worst things for me would be when a call doesn’t go right. It doesn’t happen very often, and when I say it doesn’t go right I mean, for example, the incident we attended a few weeks ago, a drowning incident, we had to leave the scene when the body still wasn’t recovered, after a long day at the incident. At the end of the day, we’re all human, we’ve all families ourselves, and we can empathise with that family, what they’re going through. That’s probably one of the worst things – when there isn’t a result at the end of it, or we feel helpless and we can’t do more. Also when you turn out in your own community and you know people affected by the incident; you know them personally sometimes. We can go as far as you can go and pass it over to statutory agencies, sometimes you feel helpless that way. Those would be the highs and lows for me. But I do think there would be a lot more people worse off if we didn’t operate within the limits. We’ve helped, to date, over 1,000 people, made a difference in all those lives.

Janice: Personally, I think if there was no FESS in Belfast, or even in Northern Ireland – we have two other vehicles as well – through the experiences and through what we have given to the public; and there have been times when people have been totally stranded and we’ve been able to come out to give them a little bit of hope that they didn’t have whenever the fire brigade were there. I just feel for those people, if we weren’t there, what would happen to them? And that would be my fear and my worry. If we weren’t there to do this, what would happen to those people?

Katrina: You obviously have to be a special kind of person to get up in the middle of the night to help your neighbours. FESS volunteers come from all walks of life, and all kinds of backgrounds. The Red Cross provides training. If you’d like to be involved in the service, find out more at