A man stands in front of a fire and emergency support service vehicleMike Ward is used to strangers depending on him after they’ve lost everything in a house fire. As a Red Cross fire and emergency support service volunteer, he’s on call to turn up at fires and look after displaced families while firefighters battle the flames.

But when he and his wife returned home one day to find their own home gutted, he learned first-hand how important that support is.

Listen to him tell his story.

[audio:http://www.blogs.redcross.org.uk.gridhosted.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Fess.mp3|titles=Mike Ward (FESS) – Losing everything in a house fire]

Read transcript below.


Narrator (Carla Dow): When Mike and Jacquie Ward returned home after a shopping trip to find firefighters battling flames in their living room and thick black smoke pouring from their windows, they were devastated.

But this wasn’t the first house fire Mike had experienced. In fact, he faces emergencies like this on a regular basis as a volunteer for the British Red Cross fire and emergency support service; the only difference being he is usually the one providing the victims with support, not the one facing the prospect of losing everything.

I met Mike at his fire-gutted home, which was being pieced back together by a team of workers. He told me of the devastation he’d faced when he lost everything.

Mike:  We’d spent two or three hours in Newport and so we set off back home and as we reached the top of our road there was a barrier across and it said road closed due to accident. As we turned in, there’s a fire engine outside our house and people are in and out the house.

So as we pulled up, the fireman came across and explained what had happened. My wife started to get very emotional so we took her next door into my neighbour’s house and I came back out to the fireman. He said: “We can take you round the house and show you what’s happened.” So I went into the house and took a look at the damage.  They explained it all to me and said: “There’s no way you are going to be able to get back in here for quite some considerable time.”

Narrator (Carla Dow):  Seeing his family home in ruins took its toll on Mike, both emotionally and practically, when he and his wife needed a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs.

Fire-damaged houseMike:  It’s an odd experience. It’s very dark because the power’s off. It’s darker still because everything is covered in smoke. It has a very eerie sensation because the smoke and the fumes are still there and you can see where the damage is and your thoughts are going through. We went upstairs and I was amazed at how much damage the smoke had done upstairs where there wasn’t a fire. There was a hole in the roof and all the floorboards were burnt on the floor. But there’s so much heat in the smoke, pictures and everything at the top of the stairs had all been melted and the light fittings were all melted. I could still smell the smoke in here two or three weeks after.

It’s afterwards, like when we were in the hotel about 9 o’clock that night, I suddenly said to my wife: ”What can I wear tomorrow?” and she looked at me and said: “Well, we haven’t any clothes for tomorrow.”  So we had to go out and completely buy literally every amount of clothing that we required, including toothbrushes and combs because we just didn’t have anything whatsoever.

You know, neighbours are wonderful and everybody helps out. Someone gives you somewhere to sit and keeps you warm and everything else; a drink appears from nowhere and all that sort of thing. But they can’t help four to five hours afterwards when it’s all over, and that’s the time when you really need somebody to explain what’s going to happen in the next few hours.

Narrator (Carla Dow):  Mike can now offer victims of fire, flood or other disasters on the Isle of Wight a uniquely empathetic service as a volunteer for the Red Cross.  He is able to personally relate to their experience.
The Red Cross’ fire and emergency support volunteers provide assistance on every level – a warm safe place to sit during the incident, emotional support, clothing, a phone to contact their insurance company or arrange alternative accommodation, as well as signposting to other agencies who can help them to start moving on.

Mike:  When there’s a fire or something that the fire brigade is called out to, and there are people involved, we get called out so the fire people can get on with putting the fire out and they don’t have to worry about the people that were involved in the fire.

We settle them in the vehicle. It’s a campervan but it’s been done out so that everything’s there. You can take people off the street and sit them down somewhere comfortable and warm because we have a heater and everything on board the vehicle. Normally they are very apprehensive. They’re unsure of what’s going on, heartbroken, and fed up, and lots of tears, and they’re panicking. They want reassuring and everything else. And that’s part of our job – trying to explain that if you and your family and your pets are all right, the house can be rebuilt. As long as you’re okay, you’re the first priority.

And then the next thing we do is get the insurance on the go. Get a phone call through to the insurance company and we can start the process off.  Sometimes people are not thinking straight so we tend to do it for them. If they are worried about pets and children, we can house the pets, get in touch with the RSPCA and get that sorted out. We take on the things that would play on their mind, other than the fire.

The hardest part is you’ve got nothing. Once the fire’s out and you leave the place and it’s secure, it’s then a different world. Because that’s when you sit back and think “I’ve got nothing. I’ve got only what I’m stood up in.”

Narrator (Carla Dow):  The fire and emergency support team work in close partnership with the local fire service to ensure full co-operation and safety at an incident. In fact, it’s the fire control that directly calls on the Red Cross volunteers – 24 hours a day, seven days a week –  to help.

Mike:  Most of the firefighters we know. A lot of the watches have had the vehicle there for a look round and we’ve had a chat with them. We do a lot of training with the fire brigade so we know their structure and how they work and we can follow it.

Narrator (Carla Dow):  As a Red Cross volunteer of more than 14 years, Mike is passionate about the organisation’s role in his local community, as well as his local community’s responsibility to the charity sector.

Mike:  I enjoy helping people, I enjoy meeting people. I think it’s a very worthwhile thing. It’s not easy to be able to give something back, but with the Red Cross I found something I could help out with.

Most people don’t realise that the Red Cross are so close to home to help you.  They are amazed when they find that we’re all volunteers. I would recommend that everyone joins an organsation of some description. I think we should all put something back into our society.

Narrator (Carla Dow):  : For more information about the fire and emergency support service, visit redcross.org.uk/fess

Image 1 © Carla Dow/British Red Cross

Image 2 © Mike Ward