We’re saying an extra “Thank You!” this Emergency Services Day to one of Intrinsic’s own, Operations Director Ben Ferguson. May our clients never have call for his alter ego On-Call Firefighter Ferguson. Thank you Ben and all the selfless individuals of the NHS and emergency services; we’re in awe of your dedication above and beyond. Read on to see how Ben rekindled his childhood ambition, and what it brings to his professional engineering toolkit.
Back where the dream began
What inspired you to become an On-Call Firefighter?
I’ve wanted to work in the emergency services, be it Police or Fire Service, ever since I was at school. I attended a careers event but as a school leaver they told me to gain more life experience first. So, that’s what I did. Life moved on and I followed the professional career path I’m on today. Attending an open day with my children at our local Walton-on-Thames Fire Station reignited (excuse the pun) my childhood dream. Mostly though, I’m driven by wanting to help others and giving something back to my community.
Briefly, what did training involve?
There’s no difference in the expectation or standards of training to operate in an on call capacity, but it’s delivered in a way that means you can continue with other commitments. My basic training was intense and took 15 weeks to complete over a series of long weekends (Thursday-Monday). It covered every aspect of firefighting: fire behaviour, breathing apparatus, working at heights, confined spaces, road traffic collisions, etc. I had to pass a written and practical exam for each element before I could move on with the next. After initial training you also have to attend one three-hour drill night every week to develop specialist skill sets.
Do you have to top up your training?
Training continues throughout your career as a firefighter. To stay in active service, all firefighters must pass an annual refresher in breathing apparatus, road traffic collision and working at heights. In addition to this there are stringent medical and fitness tests to pass. I’ve returned to the training school since passing out to qualify as a Medical First Responder which means I can treat casualties if we arrive at an incident before the paramedics.
Confronting fears and rising to new heights
What did you find most challenging about the training?
The most challenging aspect for me was breathing apparatus (BA) training which really tested me physically and mentally. The training took place at Surrey Fire & Rescue Service (SFRS) Headquarters site in Reigate where they have a building nicknamed the ‘hothouse’. It’s designed to model the layout and conditions of a property on fire internally.
Once the training team has safely generated a fire, you’re given various scenarios whereby casualties are trapped or missing and you must enter under fire conditions to effect a rescue. The hothouse exposes you to the reality of a smoke-filled house with zero visibility and extreme heat. There’s no way you can rely on your usual sensory indicators to get by so instead it requires you to employ specific search and rescue techniques.
Did you learn anything surprising about yourself during the process?
Over the years I’ve developed a fear of heights, which I worried might impede my progress. But as the weeks went on and I found myself operating at greater heights, I became increasingly confident. I’m still not completely comfortable working at height but I’ve made significant progress.
Training forced me to push myself to my physical limits on a daily basis. What surprised me most is that every time I thought I’d reached my limit, I found I could push my body even further. Alongside the physical assessments, I also learned how to take a step back under pressure and better manage my response to difficult or intense situations. Being able to assess and respond in this way has helped me deal with a lot more than I’d previously thought myself capable. It’s an important life skill.
Cuddly toy lends human touch to tragedy
Do you have a stand-out moment so far?
No two jobs are the same in the Fire Service but what they all have in common is that someone in the community has called us for help. You never know what you’re going to until you arrive at the station, and even then the team might be ascertaining details. One evening we were called to a house fire with ‘persons reported’, which means that people are still in the property or unaccounted for. Obviously every minute counts and speed is of the essence. As we arrived at the incident, further reports confirmed that there was a family of four inside the building still. One of the upstairs bedrooms was well alight and there was a very real danger of fire spreading to the remaining rooms and roof.
Your training and experience kicks in instinctively. We entered the building under rapid deployment with breathing apparatus to locate the family and extinguish the fire. Thankfully as we entered via the front door, the mum and dad were coming towards us along the hallway leading their two young daughters to safety. But unless we brought the fire under control quickly they faced they significant risk of losing their home. I’m happy to report that we did bring the fire under control.
The fire had started in one of the children’s bedrooms and as I was dampening down I found a small toy bunny on the floor. Some things stay with you forever; I’ll never forget bringing the soft toy out and giving it to one of the girls in her dressing gown. Her face lit up immediately and as she cuddled the toy she looked me in the eyes and said “Thank you”. I was incredibly proud of doing what I’d trained for, but possibly more proud of helping to make a traumatic situation a little easier.
Having your cake and eating it
What is the time commitment?
During a normal 7-day week I need to be available for 54 hours minimum including a mandatory ‘drill night’ every Thursday. This roughly equates to being on-call three or four nights a week for a period of 12 hours from 19:00 to 07:00. I don’t have to be at the station physically during these times, but I must be able to reach my local On-Call Fire Station within four minutes of my pager sounding, be that on foot or by vehicle at normal road speeds.
It was difficult getting used to the hours initially, but I’m part of an active on-call crew of eight and with only four firefighters riding in one pump at a time, there’s a degree of flexibility. Of course, we’ve also set up a WhatsApp group to help cover one another.
How are you juggling the On-Call Firefighter demands with your family and role at Intrinsic?
It’s not easy factoring in my firefighting commitments alongside being married with three young children and Operations Director at Intrinsic. I definitely couldn’t do it without the amazing support of my wife. She juggles her own successful career with being woken nightly by my pager and disappearing on a shout at a moment’s notice.
My Intrinsic colleagues understand that if I walk into the office looking like I’ve been up all night, it usually means I have! But it doesn’t mean I’m not good to go. And it never gets in the way of my professionalism and commitment to our clients and the business. Whichever safety helmet I’m wearing, my focus is 100 percent on the task in hand.
What do your children think of it all?
I have three boys ranging from 3 to 12 years who take varying degrees of interest. My three-year-old treats me as a hero (which I’m definitely not of course); the 11-year-old wants to know every detail of what I’ve been doing; my 12-year-old keeps me grounded with an eye roll as I pass him at the front door on his way to school.
Passion fuels a labour of love
What’s your advice to anyone considering doing something similar?
Take the leap and go for it! I spent far too long finding excuses not to submit my application, but I’ve never looked back. I find it challenging but hugely rewarding in equal measure.
How does your role as On-Call Firefighter Ferguson complement your work at Intrinsic?
Our scope of service at Intrinsic involves the life safety aspect of a property. My firefighter training informs my professional knowledge and ultimately my approach to design, maintenance and operation of life safety systems and managing risk in a property.
Besides which, the core values in Fire and Rescue reflect those of Intrinsic. Responsibility – we are answerable for our decisions and actions; Fairness and respect – we embrace diversity and promote a culture of inclusivity; Honesty and integrity- we are truthful and trustworthy. We do the right thing, even if it is not the easiest option; Leadership – we choose to lead by example and inspire others in an ethical way; Openness – we are open to new ideas; Professionalism – we will always be the best we can be.
- Ben Ferguson is Operations Director at Intrinsic Facilities Engineering Ltd
- On-Call Firefighter Ferguson is part of Surrey Fire and Rescue Service working 54-hours per week outside of his regular Intrinsic commitments
- National Emergency Services Day UK – #999 Day – takes place on 9th September every year since 2016. In 2022 the event moved to 19th October following the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 8th September. The event is managed by charitable organisation 999Day.org.uk