Mark Baker has an interesting life. He has been a firefighter for 8 years in England, because that’s where he’s from and nowadays he is a lieutenant with the Vancouver Fire & Rescue Services. Mark works in the area responsible for Recruitment, Outreach and Fire & Life Safety. The reason for moving halfway across the world was finding the love of his life. Despite living in Vancouver for over 9 years, he managed to keep both his accent and a delightful sense of British humor.
“Firefighter training in England sort of resembles army training,” he explains. (Which incidentally doesn’t look like army movies, in which a commander in chief comes into the dormitory banging on a saucepan, yelling for everyone to run ten miles before breakfast in the cold rain. This was the picture I have in my head when someone mentions army training.) “I spent about three months in a fire service Training Academy in the United Kingdom. It’s nice to go from zero knowledge on something, to a good level of competence,” he continues.
Like Dutch firefighter John Widdershoven mentioned during his interview, Mark Baker agrees that teamwork is one of the most essential skills people need to have or develop to work as a firefighter. “That’s what we’re looking for in a new recruit. Because in our profession you hardly do anything alone. For safety reasons you always have to be with someone else and that’s why it’s important that you can work with a wide variety of people,” Mark clarifies. “Because you always have people beside you to rely on.”
Each team consists of people of different ages. “In general the member with the most experience is in charge, but junior members play an important role of course as well. Each team member counts. For instance when we have a problem, it may well be that the youngest member comes up with the perfect solution, which nobody else has thought of. The leader of the team will then decide that’s the idea they’re going to go with and here’s how we do it. So the person in charge will take that idea, no matter which team member has come up with it, and then implement it. It’s better to have four brains working on something, than just the one.”
The first time Mark had to spring into action for an actual fire, he remembers that the adrenaline was definitely going. “Also you have to take into account if there are any people involved in the fire. Because when there are, that puts a whole different spin on it. It’s a challenge, but it’s a great job. Especially in Vancouver, since the city’s water availability is really good. The city is a natural port and it’s a pretty nice place to live. I love my job here!”
A job which also involves saving animals. “When I was a firefighter in England, there was a lot of countryside,” Mark says. “We were basically a shire brigade where there were many farms with livestock, so every now and again we had to come to the rescue of pigs and horses. Eventually there was one person assigned to a sort of animal duty. That person had to make sure the department had the right equipment and knowledge to be of assistance, because you have to be able to handle them.”
Saving animals might sound like fun, but there are also the more repetitive and boring aspects of the job, which need to be done anyway. “There’s checking the sirens of the truck among other things,” Mark sighs. “We try to limit the time they’re on, because we don’t want to disturb the neighbors too much. My colleagues and I also clean the interior of the building we’re assigned to, check the vehicle before the start of every shift, you have to be ready to go, because you’re responsible for it. Then there is BC (British Columbia) Road Laws to keep up with and of course the breathing apparatus, which has to be in good condition.”
Firefighters all over the world practice their cooking skills at the base. “We don’t have cooks working for us, we have to provide our own food,” Mark smiles. “We have to either cook or get food at a takeaway. That’s why you often see fire trucks parked outside Safeway in the morning. When we’re cooking and the alarm rings, we obviously have to drop everything and make sure to turn the stove off before the fire base burns down!”
Dropping everything when the alarm sounds and it’s time to put out fires, also goes for showering. That doesn’t include the soap, by the way! (Couldn’t resist the corny joke!) “When we take a shower, we do it quickly. Because when the alarm rings you have to get dressed really fast in order to be in the truck on time. You have one minute to respond and make it clear you’re on your way as a unit. We sometimes use the pole, but most of us go down the stairs. When you do use the pole after showering, it’s best to put your clothes on before you slide down though!”, Mark laughs.
Driving the fire truck
So the whole team is running towards the fire truck after the alarm goes off. But not everyone can just simply take place behind the wheel. “You have to do a specific driving course before you can drive a fire truck. Because it contains more than just driving. The job also involves operating the pumps. When you go to an incident, the driver has to keep the water supplied to the fire crew. Above else, that’s his prime concern. It takes about three to four years before someone can go on the course to become a driver. You have to perfect your skills before you can even think of taking on that job.”
Canadian traffic and English politeness
Mark has driven a few of the smaller trucks himself and he noticed a big difference in driving in Canada and in England. “I could drive faster in England, because everyone got out of the way. Here I couldn’t believe they actually pulled out in front of me or were driving slowly, listening to the radio or talking on their phones. And here I was, lights and sirens on and all. It’s a constant source of frustration. People actually chase us or ambulances, because we’re clearing the way. They just quickly nip behind you. Unbelievable,” Mark shakes his head. (Yep, that’s what Dutch drivers do as well, by the way!)
To conclude the interview, I wanted to know about the most impressive incident Mark has been involved in. “I remember going to a saw mill in the early morning, because we had a call that it was burning. But it was quite a bit out of the city, so it took a while to get there. By the time we arrived propane cylinders were exploding. We couldn’t get in there, but luckily we didn’t have to because there were no persons reported missing. Water supply however was an issue, so we had to get it from a stream. And we have a strainer on the end of the hose so it doesn’t suck in the fishes, old boots or shopping carts!”
Comparing Canadian firefighters to the Dutch firefighters, there are quite a few similarities, but of course the city of Vancouver is vastly different from typically Dutch towns. The environment people work in, makes a huge difference for the way they operate. However, the one thing that struck me as really interesting, and which must be something firefighters all over the world have in common, is the sheer passion for their job!