Twiggy: “There must be so many on-call firefighters, like me, who never had help and are suffering now”

Twiggy Lake says it was only once he retired as an on-call officer that the mental impact of some particularly traumatic shouts caught up with him – and he reached out for our help.

Being an on-call firefighter for 36 years, Twiggy Lake experienced some incredibly difficult shouts on the job, some of which involved his own colleagues and friends.

However, he says it was only in retirement that some of those memories caught up with him and had a major impact on his mental health.

He now hopes, by sharing his experiences, he’ll encourage other retired staff like himself to get in touch with us if they feel they’d benefit from support… and hopes that those still working will take proactive steps to look after their wellbeing throughout their life, to avoid challenges down the line.

“I was based on a busy rural station and had a very young crew at one point,” says Twiggy, 68, who worked for Devon & Somerset FRS throughout his career. “I was almost like their father figure on the station.

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“The mental side of it didn’t really get acknowledged back then, you were expected to deal with it and get on with it. The officer in charge back then was responsible for comforting his crew – and of course that fell to me.”

Twiggy knew about our support, having heard about us through colleagues, and first got in touch with us himself in the late 90s, after being injured on a shout.

“I answered a call and, while on the job, the ceiling collapsed. I was left unable to walk for a while, or even stand,” says Twiggy.

“I got in touch with the Charity and was offered a couple of weeks at Harcombe House, which gave me some time to focus completely on my recovery.”

That experience stayed with him afterwards, and Twiggy did all he could to spread the word about our services round his colleagues. However, he never expected he’d need mental heath support until much later down the line.

“Our calls could be quite horrific at times, as we covered such a large area, and we had one on a Saturday afternoon to someone who’d taken their own life… I can only talk about this now since I’ve had psychological support myself,” he says.

“My Group Manager had heard me booking out to the address and rushed in to tell me to keep my crew on the pump, I said, ‘what’s the matter’ and he said, ‘it’s one of your blokes’.

“We’d been surprised not to have seen him on station that day when the bells went off, but of course it was him we were called out to. He was really liked by all the crew, I’d worked with him for 10 or 15 years.”

Twiggy says he felt a responsibility at the time to be there for his crew, and talk to each of them as much as he could. But he says that then put a lot of pressure on his own mental health too.

“We started to have some time after shouts to debrief, and I noticed some colleagues were having difficulties after shouts. I’d often get a call from one of their partners saying they’d been having nightmares,” says Twiggy. “I’d talk to them and bring them back in to chat…

“Over the years, we had a lot of deaths that we’d attend. Then in 2009 we had a call at 3am to a house fire in the town, where we were told people were trapped. That shout has stayed with me ever since.”

Twiggy was the first on the scene and he and his crew tried to save the children inside by breaking into the home, but tragically there was nothing they could do. While he and his crew were given time after the shout to debrief and talk, Twiggy says he tried his best to move forwards like he always had before, and never really dealt with what he’d seen.

“It wasn’t until this year that I finally realised how much help I needed,” he says. “I had tennis elbow in both arms and an old friend who used to work for the Charity got in touch on my behalf.

“I was invited to Harcombe House around five months ago and was given some physical exercises. But while there, I got chatting to one of the Physiotherapists about how I’d been doing mentally.

“I used to go off and sit on the top of Dartmoor a lot, just me, and I really struggled with nightmares for a while too. It was actually my son and daughter that pointed it out to me – they’d say, ‘dad you’ve changed so much’.

“If I’d gone another year without talking, I probably would have harmed myself.”

Harold Lake

“I was put in touch with one of the Psychological Therapists and she put me in touch with an external organisation locally, which offered me 10 counselling sessions with a therapist there. By the last session I was so much better – it was like I’d been a pressure cooker and she’s released it all.”

He adds: “I never would have considered getting help like that, I wouldn’t have ever thought something like that was for me… but honestly, I think if I’d gone another year without talking, I probably would have harmed myself.”

Twiggy now says he’s concerned there will be many other retired personnel, like him, who are struggling and may need a helping hand and hopes his story will encourage them to seek help too.

“There must be so many retained firefighters like me, perhaps they’ve retired now, and have been to all these calls, just carried on, never had help, but likely suffer from it now,” he adds.

“The ones I really worry about are the officers and those in charge of crews, because they’re the ones those crews turn to for support. Then they – like me – go home with that responsibility on their shoulders.

“I know on the calls we’d get, the crew would finish one of those horrific calls, then return home and sit down for dinner with their children as if nothing had happened.

“I just want to get this message out to the people that have retired, as well as those who are still working in stations.”

You can help us to support more people like Twiggy by playing our June Lottery Superdraw now:

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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.