‘I can’t express how proud I am’ – South Yorkshire fire chief pays tribute to staff after year like no other

South Yorkshire’s Chief Fire Officer Alex Johnson may have preferred a quieter first year in the job, but that's not what she got.

By Dan Hayes
Thursday, 31st December 2020, 7:00 am

Having taken the reins of the service in January, just a few months after the floods which devastated large parts of the county last November, within weeks she was dealing with coronavirus.

And in May, the huge Hatfield moors fire saw around a hundred firefighters trying to put out one of the biggest moorland blazes South Yorkshire has ever seen.

“It has been a challenging year,” she says, understatedly, in a brief moment’s downtime at South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue service’s Sheffield city centre headquarters.

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South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Chief Officer Alex Johnson. Picture Scott Merrylees

“I sometimes wonder what it would be like to do the job in ‘peacetime’. You keep thinking things are going to get back to normal and it never does.

“But talk about stepping up to a challenge. I can’t express how proud I am of what our firefighters and support staff have done.”

Like all other organisations, coronavirus has affected her staff personally with the service seeing much higher levels of sickness than they would normally experience.

However, the pandemic also saw firefighters and support staff drafted into new roles like delivering prescriptions, helping food banks and sorting PPE.

South Yorkshire's devastating floods in November 2019.

“We just changed what we did,” she says.

“We still went to fires but the community need was different so we did what was critical.

“The strapline for the National Fire Chiefs Council during Covid was ‘ready, willing and able’ and I feel we’ve lived up to that this year.”

Key to this effort has been South Yorkshire’s local resilience forum (LRF), a meeting which draws together all the services we rely on to keep the county functioning come what may.

Fire crews tackling the fire on Hatfield Moors.

At the beginning of the pandemic the LRF was meeting every day, with Alex in the chair, looking at every aspect of the county’s response to an unprecedented challenge.

“I had done a course on chairing a local resilience forum but I wasn’t expecting to do it for a global pandemic,” she says.

“But the four local authorities, the emergency services and the utilities have really worked well together.

“I have been really impressed with how well we have worked together for the sake of our communities. It is good to see that what we have practiced for has worked.”

A South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue staff member delivering prescriptions.

However, in a year of such turmoil, Alex is keenly aware of the need to look after every aspect of her staff’s mental and physical wellbeing.

“We have been in a major incident mode since November last year,” she says. “It has been non-stop and we don’t know what is going to happen next.”

“Tough firefighters don’t always seek help but everyone is human. The idea that they and police officers, people in the army and ambulance staff don’t suffer with mental health is just not true.”

But, just like those we remembered on the anniversary of the Sheffield Blitz, Alex says she is confident that her service and the wider county will cope with whatever comes their way.

“Covid is the nearest we have come to something like the Blitz in my lifetime,” she says. “It has affected every part of the community.

“But as long as people follow the advice we will get through this.”

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