Meet Peterborough's Volunteer Fire Brigade team

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FLOPPING in front of the telly is the most a lot of us can manage after a hard day slogging our guts out at work. But a group of Peterborough people work during the day and turn into firefighters at night - for free.

FLOPPING in front of the telly is the most a lot of us can manage after a hard day slogging our guts out at work. But a group of Peterborough people work during the day and turn into firefighters at night - for free.Jemma Walton paid a visit to Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade's headquarters.

TONY DeMatteis has been in the fire service for the past 23 years. If he was paid, he would now be earning 35,000-plus. But for all his efforts he hasn't even received a day's wage.

In fact, it costs him money to drive to and from Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade's HQ, but he doesn't mind.

Because Tony is one of only 14 people in the country to give his time up completely free of charge to help rescue people from car crashes, cats from trees, and fight fires across the city.

"I never ever think about the money side of things," he said. "I'm lucky, because I've always enjoyed my day job, and so I haven't thought about joining the paid service. I just like doing my bit as a volunteer."

Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade is the only one of its kind in the country. Other areas, including Yaxley, Whittlesey and Thorney, have retained fire fighters, who earn between 12,000 and 14,000 a year, but Peterborough doesn't.

The work that is done by retained fire fighters in other parts of the country is done in Peterborough by Tony and his crew.

"We had one lad who saw some of us on a recruitment stall and got very interested," he said. "We phoned him up afterwards and he was all for it, really keen and enthusiastic.

"But then he said 'By the way – how much do you get paid? I'd forgotten about that', and we had to say 'We don't,' and he said he just couldn't do it. And admittedly it is a big commitment."

A big commitment doesn't cover the half of it. The 13 men and one woman who volunteer for the service have to take three weeks' holiday from their normal jobs to train, and when qualified can expect to be called out a handful of times during the week.

Tony's mum and dad came to Peterborough in the '50s to work at the brickworks, and Tony said he volunteered more than 20 years ago because he wanted to give something back to the community which had given him and his family so much.

Although the volunteer station has its roots in the business community, the volunteers these days come from many varied walks of life – at the moment there is a PE teacher and a carpenter, and Tony is a senior prison officer.

"You need a good sense of humour to be a volunteer, a black sense of humour at times," he said. "We do see some horrible things, but we have access to the fire service's occupational health team if we need counselling.

"You do need to be quite a strong person, and be prepared for the worst. We had a fire recently where a grandfather and a child had died, and one of the lads' wives had just had a baby, and he took that quite badly, and so it can be traumatic. But it is a hugely rewarding hobby, really."

Each of the volunteers tells Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service when they are available for a call-out, and carries an alerter, so they can be bleeped and called when necessary. The first four volunteers to make it to the station will be the four that go out on the call.

Sometimes, inevitably, the call will come at a very awkward time – like when Tony has got his glad rags on and is all set to take Mrs DeMatteis out for the night.

"I've got two daughters aged 19 and 21, and they've grown up with me volunteering," he said. "And if my wife complains when I get called out and we're meant to be doing something, they always stick up for me, and say 'Come on, mum, he could be saving someone's life!'

"And whenever I get a call, even if it's right in the middle of the night, my eldest in particular will always say 'drive safely dad'."

Although Tony is loathe to let his well-trained volunteers go, there is no denying that volunteering is a very good way to set yourself up for a paid career in the fire service.

Ironically enough, Lynn Betteridge started his career in the volunteers when the paid service was on strike in the late '70s, and now works as the link between the paid and voluntary fire service in Peterborough.

He said: "I started off as an industrial fireman when I was a tool maker for Hotpoint, and I was a volunteer here for 18 months. But I was a pretty good football player and I think they wanted me to play for the force and so I switched over!"

The volunteers are called whenever back-up is needed, and if the paid for service is busy they will be dispatched to jobs and be expected to do a fully professional job.

And as well as being on call, the volunteers are expected to meet for drill practice every Tuesday evening. "It's funny, but you can guarantee that we'll get called out at all hours, but nothing ever happens on a Tuesday when we're all together," joked Rick Lloyd, who is hoping to become a full-time, paid, fireman.

"But that's just the way these things go. But we don't mind – we're here to deal with whatever happens, whenever it happens."Service helped fan the flames of love for Shaun and Barbara

SINGLE people take note – volunteering at the fire station is not only good for your community, it can also help you to find true love!

Shaun Crick started at the fire station 12 years ago, but little did he realise that when Barbara Wakeford joined in September 2003 they would be married three years later.

"I'm lucky because, unlike the other lads, I don't have to leave my wife or girlfriend at home when I get called out on a job," said Shaun, who lives in Swann Gardens, three minutes from the fire station.

"We go out together, and so we both understand what the other is going through."

And while many blokes might feel protective when watching their wives battle fire or get stuck into a rescue operation, Shaun said his missus can look after herself.

"I think she'd be offended if I suggested that she wasn't fully capable, or wanted to protect her all the time," he said. "And so when we go out I do what I do and she does what she does. I let her get on with what she's trained to do!"

Barbara (27) moved to Peterborough four years ago when she finished university, and searched the internet for a worthwhile voluntary project she could devote her spare time to.

"I found out about the volunteer fire brigade and phoned them up, and here I am now," she said. "It just seemed like a good idea – at the time!"

Barbara and Sean married in Australia in 2006, and think nothing of getting in from a hard day at work and being called out four or five times during the week.

Barbara's working life is spent working in Perkins' logistics' department, while Sean is a builder.

He said: "My company has a contract to do building work with the cathedral, and so my job came in very handy when there was a fire in the cathedral as I knew the building. So your day job can help your job with the fire service and vice versa.

"I'm 40 now, and quite happy with what I do, and so I wouldn't really consider giving it up to be a paid fireman. Barbara and I just enjoy being volunteers."Rick volunteers after shifts

RICK Lloyd sometimes finishes a stressful 12-hour shift keeping the people held in custody in Peterborough police station under control to get home and be called out to work for another 10 hours with Peterborough Volunteer Fire Service.

"Your body just gets used to it," he said.

At 21, Rick is one of the youngest volunteers, and decided to give his free time up to help three-and-a-half years ago out of a sense of duty towards his community.

He said: "My grandad was in the London Fire Brigade, and perhaps his stories encouraged me to go into the fire service. It's had a place in my heart since I was young, put it that way."

Rick, who can be called to anything from five to seven jobs each week, is currently thinking about joining the paid fire service. He is fully trained and can deal with anything from a road traffic accident through to a house or rubbish fire.

And although every volunteer has times when they think 'I can't be bothered', Rick said he and his fellow volunteers have to ignore that voice in their head and carry on regardless.

"You have to work around that and not get despondent," he said. "To do this you have to be the kind of person that doesn't mind giving a lot and not getting lots back all the time.

"My friends say they understand why I do it, but I'm not sure you really can until you've done it yourself. One of the best things about volunteering here is you can develop skills that you can't when you're busy at work.

"You are given space and time here to develop yourself, and the guys are my best mates. The friendships you make volunteering here are nothing like the friendships you'll make anywhere else."Businessmen formed brigade

PETERBOROUGH Volunteer Fire Brigade was formed in 1884 by a number of prominent city businessmen after fire tore through the infirmary.

The businessmen thought the service provided by the Corporation Brigade wasn't good enough, and so set up their own!

In 1941 more than 1,600 separate fire brigades up and down the country were merged into the National Fire Service, and despite lots of upheavals in the way the fire service is organised, Peterborough Volunteer Fire Brigade has managed to remain independent.

In fact, it is now the only voluntary brigade in the country.

The volunteer brigade owns its own fire station, and although it conforms to all the required Home Office fire service national standards, and comes under the jurisdiction of the state Chief Fire Officer, it still operates in the spirit in which it was set up.