One Saturday morning recently I saw the streets of Saltburn from a different angle: about ten feet up from the cab of the town fire engine. I felt ten years old again, and am sorry to say I spent the first ten minutes waving at strangers. Sadly I couldn’t be the driver, though, as that seat was occupied by Paul Thompson, the station manager, which was probably for the best.
My ride on the engine also had a serious purpose. I had met Paul the day before to discuss issues surrounding the proposed new fire engine for Saltburn, which has a long extendable steel arm on its roof, with a cage on the end, allowing it to be raised much higher than is possible with the current engine. Paul has long argued that Saltburn needs this extra height because of the high buildings at the eastern end of the seafront, and some of the street houses are also higher than the present ladder goes.
I’m glad he didn’t offer to demonstrate this with me in the cage, as I am too cowardly even to go on roller coasters with the children, but he did offer to take me around town in the engine the next morning, so that I could see the difficulties caused by badly parked vehicles to the fire crew in an emergency.
It is sobering to see familiar sights through the eyes of a fire officer. The line of well-equipped white camper vans along the seafront, most of which I covet, are through Paul’s professional eyes a string of large, full gas cylinders lining a populous street.
I’ve always assumed that if I was hanging out of an upper window of a house in flames, the fire engine would come wailing up the street and hoist its ladder unhindered. But the truth these days, with the increasing number of street-parked cars and vans, is that the firemen may have to spend some time bouncing one or more vehicles out of the way at the top of the street before they can reach the fire.
Take one step further: imagine that the people hanging out of that window are children, and then imagine the firemen, the only hope for those children at that moment, bouncing your car up and down, trying to make room for the engine.
Many of us do it at some time: parking on a corner to get really close to a shop (I’ll just perch here for a minute), or leaving the car at an unusual angle to the pavement because we were in a hurry, or across an entrance that we can’t imagine anyone needing to use in the next half hour. We may be risking a ticket, a rant from an angry property owner, or a shaming lecture from someone more grown-up than ourselves. (One man who parked in a disabled space in London had his car covered in post-it notes by inventive activists – it’s on Youtube.) But beyond all these things, as we shut the car door and look around, it’s worth thinking about Paul trying to get to that window.