Fighting fire with passion

by Kimberley Cummins


Fire — you can call it the master of destruction, a raging tiger, a beastly burning inferno, whatever you may. But it does not bring fear to Station Officer in the Barbados Fire Service, Neal Smithwick.

As a matter of fact, there is nothing that he prefers more than to be battling the beast.

Last September he celebrated 32 years doing this on behalf of the department and in the interest of his country, and this week at his home in Simmons Land in Rendezvous, Christ Church he sat with Barbados TODAY to tell of his life and time in the service.

From a young age some people have their eyes set on a dream career and they do everything to try to achieve this goal. However, Smithwick wasn’t one of those people. As a 27 year old he was already a husband, soon to be a father and working at Plantation’s Limited — somewhat contented.

A job in the service, he said, was never his goal. The job and later the passion evoked when battling fires came purely by “a stroke of luck”. One day a friend told him the fire service wanted men and handed him a form. At that time, even though people got paid for certificates, the focal point for admittance to the service was certain physical skills so after a few tests and a written examination, the more than three decade relationship began.

Nowadays certification and academic success are highly essential and although he was “lucky” in a sense to be admitted without those qualification, the former St. Leonard’s Boys’ student noted he believed this enhanced the organisation.

The old time days.
The old time days.

Persons reading his story and believing that money was the impetuous of this marriage are wrong. In fact, at that time the department paid $750 a month and that was less money than he made at Plantation.

“I don’t think money was that important at the time… I guess we saw it as an elevation, based on the perception of the service. It didn’t boil down to the dollars and cents because at the time you were saying that you going in the fire service and that is an avenue for development,” he said frankly.

During his time he battled many blazes, with the one at the old Sugar Museum in St. Philip at Sunbury Plantation House and the other at the home of the owner of Juman’s Garment Factory in Lowlands, Christ church being the worst.

And he has seen many changes over the years, the most important being the development of the organisation, the diversity to include more women and younger people and the emphasis on being safety conscious.

Throughout his years he also suffered a few injuries. He reported that once when he was posted at the St. John station he responded†to a house fire, and on arrival they found a gas cylinder on fire in the yard. He applied water to it and it exploded.

He said he and other officers began to smell the scent of “burnt meat”, and when they checked his eyebrows and moustache was singed, the father of two recounted with much laughter.

There was another fire, this time on Maxwell Main Road, Christ Church one Christmas eve, when his hand was so badly cut by a louvre glass that he had to be taken to the hospital.

Maybe his worst incident occurred one day when he was returning from a fire. The truck he was driving got into an accident along Waterford, St. Michael, he recalled, resulting in injuries that forced two other officers to retire medically unfit.

One of the things the member of the Britton’s Hill Wesleyan Holiness Church said changed significantly in the organisation since the early years was the way the department deals with counselling.

After experiencing this accident he was left nervous. Whenever he got behind the wheel of one of those big red fire trucks he felt he was driving too fast,†always cognisant that another accident could occur. Eventually those fears disappeared and he was able to get back to full operation.

He explained though, then at the time there wasn’t an avenue to help him through this process.

During the difficult period, he explained, he never lost his love for fire fighting — and today he is even more passionate about the job then when he was a rookie.

This organisation, he said, has enhanced him and he is proud that he was able to contribute in turn to its development.

But thirty-two years is not 32 days, he stressed, and at some point he will have to retire, so he has already begun giving thought to a future after fire fighting.

“I’ve had several promotions in the department…, but there is still a lot more that I can contribute to the department, and the fire service is a job that I love beyond measure,” he explained.

“I don’t think I would want to be anything else than a fire officer. It gives me great pleasure and satisfaction to educate people about fires, help people in setting up fire safety programmes in schools and homes and to train people. The whole idea was to see the development of the fire service [and] over the last 30 or so years — we have come a long way.”

Smithwick added: “I think we have taken on an international flavour. If you look at our motto, we speak to being recognised locally, regionally and internationally as a professional fire department — and a lot of that has happened. We’ve had people in the department now with the highest level of training — Master’s, Bachelor’s degrees. We have people trained professionally, people associated with international agencies and have international designations. We have people trained in fire investigation, I myself am a member of the Regional Fire Engineers (fraternity). So we have people at levels that can compare and compete internationally.”

He added: “If I leave the fire department and I have the ability and strength to work somewhere else, my option would be to work in the social services or to be a fire prevention and safety consultant. This job is a very rewarding job and I think it is a job that a lot of young people should consider.”††

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