4 May 2022
To celebrate International Firefighters’ Day today, we spoke to Mark Drewitt, one of the five fire crew at London’s Air Ambulance. Working from our helipad, Mark has been with us since 2018. Here, he tells us what it’s like to be part of the London’s Air Ambulance crew, and how he found himself working on top of Europe’s tallest helipad.
What was the career path that led to you becoming a firefighter?
It actually started as a hobby! After school I studied electronics, and was an electronics engineer for a long time. But in my spare time, I was a retained (part time) domestic firefighter with Kent Fire & Rescue, and I did that for 12 years. You lived near a station and were given a pager and did a certain number of hours a week. I progressed up to a Crew Commander there and then a few friends who had worked with me, worked at Biggin Hill in aviation and talked me into signing up there. I realised I really liked the aviation aspect! So I applied and eventually got a position at Biggin Hill Airport as an Aviation Firefighter.
I was there for nine years and then about seven years ago, the extended hours at London’s Air Ambulance started. I started helping cover the summer hours and then in 2018, they decided they needed another person. I applied and got the position!
In reality, we don’t fight fires here – at least we hope we would never need to. We’re more of an insurance policy.
What was the training like?
At Kent, initially you do what they used to call “ride to fires”; you’re learning the basics so you can be useful at an incident. You learn how to put ladders up, how to operate the pump, how to run hose. Then you do modules, like breathing apparatus, within the first two years – which is your probation period. Then there’s driving and incident command and crew command.
The training is always ongoing. The difference in being a domestic firefighter is that they do the limited amount of training, in everything you can think of. Whether that is road traffic collisions, house fires, high rise incidents, ship rescues, trench rescues: anything you can think of, they do a certain amount of training in it. Whereas in aviation, it’s all about aviation.
What are the other differences between being in London's Air Ambulance's fire crew and being a domestic firefighter?
We train exactly the same as an aviation firefighter: so every six months we go and train at a helicopter rig with real fuel and casualties, so we can keep our competency up. But in reality, we don’t fight fires – at least we hope we would never need to. We’re more of an insurance policy. Because of where we are, the London Fire Brigade would take 10-15 minutes to respond up here, and in that time, there’d be little left. We’re here just in case, more than anything else.
Therefore, day to day, to prevent a fire, we’re checking equipment and we’re monitoring every take off and landing. We monitor every movement, whether it’s our aircraft or anyone else’s.
The best thing about being a member of London's Air Ambulance's fire crew is definitely the team. It's a very small team, which is what drew me in. But you're part of a small team that is making a big difference to people's lives.
Especially with our own aircraft, we know it so well that if there’s something not right – like a different smell or sound – we can always pick it up and say wait we’re not happy with that. We had an occasion where there was a problem with an engine and we said hang on that doesn’t smell right and turned out it was the actual heating system failing.
Have you ever been scared on the job? How do you overcome the fear in order to get the job done?
It’s like anything though, when you do something again and again you gradually build up a resistance to it and you get used to it.
At my first ever house fire, I was petrified. But you learn – only through experience – to temporarily shut off emotion. At this house fire I was so fresh out of training and I was terrified, but there was a five year old boy in there, so I quickly learnt I needed to switch off and get the job done. You just learn to ignore emotions for a while.
You could argue I’m not working in the right place as at the start, I wasn’t a big fan of heights! So working on the highest helipad in Europe probably wasn’t the best idea!
What is the highlight of your career so far?
At London’s Air Ambulance, it’s definitely when you get to see the difference that together as a team you’ve made. I think I had been here for about a year when a boy who had been hit by a car came up with his family. At the end of the tour the younger sister offered me a card that the boy and her had made. I knelt down so she could hand it to me and she said “thank you for saving my brother” and my heart just melted.
From my time at Kent, it would be that first house fire. With my lack of experience I still managed to help get that little boy out.
Do you have any advice for someone looking to become a firefighter?
Just don't give up. It's like applying for the London Marathon, you never really get in the first time.
So just keep going and keep going. They’re looking for math and English, but they’re also looking for someone who can keep calm under stress, and a certain level of fitness. Just don’t give up.
Speaking with Lynsey Grant
In March 2022, we spoke to Lynsey, London's Air Ambulance's Lead Flight Paramedic, to mark Science Week.
Lynsey discussed why she believes science is a key element to our society and shared her path to becoming a paramedic; offering advice to others who may be planning a similar career.