As an on-call firefighter, you’re not only facing the huge pressures that come with a role in the fire service – but you’re juggling that with another job, life at home and the possibility of being called to a shout at a moment’s notice.
It’s something Piotr Gudan, an on-call firefighter with Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, wants to highlight, as he shares his story of how we’ve supported both his physical and mental health.
Piotr, who works at Blairgowrie Fire Station, runs his own kayaking and outdoor business, alongside his on-call role. He has a young son, Dominic, and also volunteers in his community.
For him, he says the constant juggling is incredibly rewarding – but it comes with some tough challenges too.
“On-call firefighting is one of the best jobs ever, but at the same time one of the toughest to manage,” says Piotr. “You have a pager which, day or night, can ring, and a quota of hours a week to be available.
“If you’ve got a flexible life, then great, but almost nobody does. All of us leave looking after ourselves until last, I’m sure.”
He adds: “In my day job, I need to be positive and happy all the time, loving the outdoors and very customer-facing, when in reality I may have just come back from a night call when it was a fatality…. maybe a fire where people were seriously injured and you were the one rushing to pull people out, or maybe feeling awful because you were stuck on the pump operation and couldn’t do anything physically. Then you have to come back and meet your clients, or people on the street.
“Don’t get me wrong, thankfully most calls aren’t the serious ones, but sometimes they are… and stepping from one mental set to another mental set is such a tough game.
“People don’t realise what we have to do to come back to our day jobs, literally minutes after that sometimes.”
However, despite those pressures, Piotr says it’s a job he loves and one which has helped him become a part of his community.
“Being on-call… not many people realise the toll it takes, yet it’s a brilliant thing to do,” says Piotr. “When I moved here from Wales, I didn’t know anyone in the area so it allows you to get to know the community and protect them. That sense of belonging is fantastic – it’s so worth it.”
“The physical help was great, but it was so much more”
Piotr spoke to us about his role while recalling the support we’ve offered him over the years.
“Many of us never have to use The Fire Fighters Charity, but I was unfortunate enough to need to within the first few months of being a firefighter,” says Piotr.
“I’d just moved and set up my business here, so I was self-employed. I had a horrible cycling accident and fell onto my elbow badly.
“The first predictions were very bad, including amputation of the arm. For someone like me who had just turned 30 and just started my own business seven days earlier, so there was no income set up yet, to have that news was a life-changing moment.
“Despite the accident not being related to the fire service, the Charity offered to help me. I didn’t expect it and it was honestly amazing.”
Piotr was off work for six months, in which time he visited Jubilee House, our centre in Cumbria, for a week’s stay on a physical rehabilitation programme.
“That visit was a complete game-changer,” he says. “The physical help was great, but it was so much more. The small groups, the quality of food, the friendly staff, not only looking after your physical fitness but also your mental, which I didn’t consider I needed at the time. Ten years on, I can see even more how empowering that was.”
“As firefighters, we might not realise we need help until later”
Sadly, just two years later, Piotr went through some challenges in his personal life which began to impact his mental health. Fortunately, he knew exactly where to turn for help early.
“Life is a funny thing and changes over time, sometimes gradually and sometimes dramatically, and unfortunately this time my personal life wasn’t going in the direction I’d have liked,” says Piotr.
“It was the time of year when everyone was cheerful and happy, and everything crumbling for me at the same time was quite overwhelming.
“I didn’t sleep for ages, that was a big warning sign, I had a different attitude to eating and it got to the point I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. It’s those small routines that change and they can be quite hard to identify and realise you can get help for.
“In my line of work, is someone’s thrown in the water, it’s only going to take us a short time to get them out and warm again. But if you’ve been exposed to the cold for hours, it will take significantly longer to recover. That’s my personal metaphor with mental fitness too.
“It’s very difficult to distinguish when your mental fitness is being affected, how do we know that we’re cold? By the time you’re shivering, that’s a second stage, so it’s knowing before that…”
He adds: “Sometimes as a firefighter, we might not realise we need help until later. We may have finished a traumatic job and unfortunately in my nine years in the role, I’ve seen quite a few of those, and in those first days and week there’s help there for you from your employer – but maybe you don’t think you need help then.
“Maybe you then start realising it is affecting you. That’s when you can reach out to the Charity – even if it happens a year down the line. It’s awesome to know it can help you. The side effect of our job is knowing you will remember some of these call-outs for the rest of your life – the question is how do you want to remember them?”
Piotr got in touch with us in 2022 and recalls: “A practitioner spoke to me and, importantly, listened. They then offered advice on what I could do myself, and what the Charity could do for me. I was then offered remote counselling. It was exactly what I needed. There’s literally help a phone call away.
“I was very nervous to start with, but I now find speaking over the phone like that much better for me because I can sit in a comfortable place at home. It worked for me.”
“If you’re in that earlier stage, it’s quicker to deal with things”
Since having our counselling support, Piotr has discovered some of our online articles and courses in our Wellbeing Hub in My Fire Fighters Charity, which he says are really helpful to look after your mental wellbeing at an early stage, before things get worse.
“When you’re looking for information, the internet is full of it but vetting it can be difficult – but The Fire Fighters Charity has information specific to us in the fire service,” he adds.
“You can look through the app, the website, and see readings, video content and information which might help you or at least steer you to a bigger pack of information that you’ve been looking for. If you’re in that earlier stage, it’s quicker to deal with things.”
Piotr’s also received a copy of our children’s book, The Wolf Was Not Sleeping, which he reads to his son to help him understand his work a little more.
“It’s one of the greatest, simplest ways to explain to a little boy that when your pager goes off, it’s okay, you’re going with the really cool people. We read it often,” says Piotr.
He hopes, by sharing his story, he’ll encourage more people to access some of the support available to them through our Charity and, in turn, do what they can to support us.
“Many of us know that the Charity needs support,” says Piotr. “You don’t need to be a firefighter to support it, maybe you know a firefighter or maybe not. If you can, you can donate monthly or raise money as a group of people with events or challenges.
“You can also do things individually – like I did the Edinburgh Marathon – or with a local business, there’s lots of different things. You could even volunteer or donate clothes to recycling bins. It helps each of us and our families and it’s so appreciated. Your contribution is a small part of something huge which helps so many people.”
If you feel you’d benefit from our health and wellbeing support, we may be able to help you. Call our Support Line on 0800 389 8820, make an enquiry online or register for My Fire Fighters Charity now and visit the ‘Access Support’ tab.
You can also join our ‘Share Your Story’ Group in the app, by clicking on the ‘Groups’ tab, to chat to others who have received our support or enquire about sharing your own story.