VIDEO: The life of a retained firefighter

RISKING your life on a daily basis for those you do not even know may seem unusual, but it’s all in a day’s work for firemen and women throughout the country.

A 25-year-old retained firefighter in Chichester has spoken of the pride she takes in giving 120 hours a week to help the community – ready to risk life and limb to help others.

Watch manager, Phil Cook and firefighter Lisa Lillywhite.Picture by Kate Shemilt.C130736-1

Watch manager, Phil Cook and firefighter Lisa Lillywhite.Picture by Kate Shemilt.C130736-1

“I know it sounds really corny but you always want to help people,” said Lisa Lillywhite, formerly based in East Wittering, but now based in Chichester.

A former employee at Cineworld, Lisa recently qualified as a mechanic.

She wanted to be a firefighter from the age of about four years old, when she used to run around wearing a plastic Fireman Sam helmet.

Growing up in East Wittering, she used to watch the fire trucks pulling in and out of the village’s fire station, in Oakfield Approach. 
One day she mentioned to the watch manager at the site she had wanted to be a firefighter and he told her to try it out.

Firefighter Lisa Lillywhite at work.Picture by Kate Shemilt.C130736-3

Firefighter Lisa Lillywhite at work.Picture by Kate Shemilt.C130736-3

“I was really excited,” she said. “It takes a while to get in when you do all the tests.”

There are a number of obstacles retained firefighters have to overcome, for example maths and English exams, tests of situational awareness, as well as having to pass a physical fitness test.

However, this, in addition to a large amount of training, which lasted between six months to a year, did not daunt Lisa.

“I loved the training, it was the best bit of the job,” she said.

She began at East Wittering Fire Station in June, 2008, when she was 20, and has not looked back since.

“Anybody that asks me about my job, I always say it’s the best job in the world for me,” she said.

However the heavy workload and responsibility is a unique burden that not everyone would find easy to take on.

Watch manager at East Wittering Phil Cook said: “It’s a huge commitment. You’ve got to change the whole of your life around it.”

There are flexible contracts, but when you are on call you have to be able to arrive at the fire station within four minutes of being contacted.

“It does change your way of thinking about everything,” said Lisa.

“When I go home I always reverse onto the drive so I can drive straight off.”

Being able to drive is a necessity. Lisa finds it easier being based in Chichester because she can drive around to places and never be that far away from the fire station.

But she said when she was based in East Wittering, having to have the car with her at all times made it tricky to get out and about when she needed to be ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice.

At the moment, Lisa is on call in Chichester 120 hours every week, but she often works more hours than that.

It’s a tough role, but also a rewarding one.

“It’s definitely a job where you get a buzz out of knowing you’ve helped someone in their hour of need,” said Phil.

However, he cautioned against people applying who based too much of their expectations on television programmes.

“They come in having seen Fireman Sam and London’s Burning and it’s not like that,” he said, before adding that those for whom it was a suitable profession would find it satisfying.

“It’s a very rewarding job. It’s not even a job... it’s a vocation,” he added.

Lisa agreed, adding: “It’s a team game as well – that’s a massive part of it.

“It makes me feel good about myself that I would risk my life to save anyone and that makes me feel like a good person.”

Speaking about the most important qualities for a retained firefighter, she said: “Compassion for others. You do risk your life on a daily basis for people you don’t even know.”

It can be a job for life if you keep passing your yearly fitness tests and the minimum age to join is 18.

“At the end of the day you have to be physically fit because it’s a physically demanding job,” said Phil.

“We do have all sorts working for the fire brigade. We’ve had people that work at Cineworld, office workers, taxi drivers, housewives, house-husbands.

“We’re looking for people that can give cover all over really. We’ve got people from all walks of life doing the job.”

Being a retained firefighter is a busy vocation and once you are in your whole life revolves around it.

But according to Lisa the hard work is worth it to help people.

“You just want everybody to be safe don’t you,” she said.