Rescue is ‘perfect end’ for retiring firefighter and career first for Fire Control operator

The rescue of a family from a house fire in Birkenhead has been described as the ‘perfect end’ to a 30-year career for one Wirral firefighter, while also marking a career first for the Fire Control operator who answered the call.

Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service (MFRS) was called to Argyle Street South shortly before 2am on Thursday 1st October. A family of three were trapped in their bedroom after an electrical fire took hold in their living room, but the actions of Watch Manager Simon Swann and Fire Control Operator Katie Wagner meant the family were brought to safety relatively unharmed. 

Birkenhead Green Watch were the first responding fire engine, headed up by WM Swann.

Simon said: “As we were getting close to the bottom of the road, Fire Control got in touch with us. We thought they were going to tell us that everyone had got out, but they didn’t. Instead they told us the family were trapped in the bedroom – directly above the fire in their living room.”

As the crew pulled into the street, they could see smoke pouring from the house, the family clearly visible in the upstairs window with their faces covered in soot.

Simon, who is due to retire from MFRS later this month, recalls: “We looked through the living room window and you could see the orange glow of this really severe fire. My two firefighters – Lee Hodgers and Barry Clarke – were in breathing apparatus (BA) ready to go under air. They knew they had to gain entry quickly to deal with the fire but the priority was obviously getting the family out safely. It would have taken 10 minutes for the team to cut through the front door – we didn’t have that time so I said to my driver, FF John McDaid, that we’d best get the short extension ladder.”

Simon pitched the ladder to the roof of the bay window and quickly climbed up to the waiting family, who were visibly traumatised by what was unfolding.

“I got to the top and said ‘pass me the lad’,” said Simon. “When I joined 30 years ago, we were taught how to do a firefighter’s carry. It’s something I haven’t had to do since but it was instinct – I got the lad and carried him down the ladder to Lee and Barry who were waiting at the bottom. It was quite dramatic as the fire was right underneath me.”

After rescuing the child, Simon climbed up the ladder again, planning on bringing the mum to safety but was instead handed a small kitten.

“I got it down quickly – it was obviously terrified – and then shot back up the ladder, got mum and walked down and then did the same with the dad. The whole time there was smoke pouring out – really black, acrid electrical smoke. As we got to the bottom of the ladder, the second appliance arrived, shortly followed by the third – it was five minutes of chaos.”

Once everyone was safe, crews forced entry to the property and extinguished the fire. The family were taken to hospital for treatment for smoke inhalation but were released later that same day.

Simon, from New Brighton, added: “I’ve spent 30 years in the job at some of the busiest stations and you just don’t get rescues like that. People I’ve worked with for 28 years have said ‘that was brilliant’ but you feel embarrassed – it’s just instinct and any one of them would have done the same.

“Everything came together for a successful conclusion. They had working smoke alarms and an escape window – the only way it could have been better is if there wasn’t a fire to start with.”

Simon joined MFRS in September 1990 and has been stationed at West Kirkby, Liverpool City, Toxteth and Birkenhead. He also spent two years as a firefighter in Canada. He will retire on 17th October.

He added: “I have loved this job – it’s the best job anyone could ever imagine to do. It has been fantastic and to be given the opportunity to make a difference like this, it has made me and the whole crew feel blessed. It’s the perfect high to end my career on.”

Like all incidents MFRS attends, this was a team effort, with the family having been reassured during those first few minutes by Fire Control Operator Katie Wagner.

Katie, who joined MFRS just over a year ago, kept the family on the phone, offering them crucial survival advice and reassurance that help was on the way.

She said: “It was my first fire survival guidance call. Everyone was saying ‘well done, you handled that really well’ but I just dealt with it like a normal call. It was only when I put the phone down that the adrenaline kicked in. I did breathe a massive sigh of relief though when I saw that the crew was almost there.

“It definitely wasn’t a one-man job though – it was a team effort. When you join Fire Control, you go through a great training course that really prepares you for these kinds of situations. You never know what it’s going to be when you get the call. Sometimes you answer and it’s a cat up a tree but then sometimes it’s something serious like this – every call is different.”

Whilst Katie and Simon’s actions ultimately saved the family, the presence of working smoke alarms were instrumental. Had they not alerted the family to the fire, the incident could have had a very different ending.

Make sure you have at least one working smoke alarm one every level of the home. Test them every week. If you don’t have working smoke alarms, call us on 0800 731 5958.