Fire Service Museum fronts mental health support
The newly opened Fire Service Museum in Romsey, Hampshire, is much more than a traditional exhibition for fire memorabilia, Features Editor Lorna King discovers. She speaks to founder and former Firefighter Antony Hurle about the community hub established to help young people with mental health problems
Mental health support for our emergency services personnel is a constant hot topic of discussion, especially when we take into consideration the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A quick search on Google will recommend numerous charities and organisations that will point us in the right direction for additional support and advice; we are most definitely not alone. But what of the pressure being put upon these services? An increase in mental health referrals surely means longer waiting lists and the possibility of some cases slipping through the net with disastrous consequences. I am just speculating here, and I know first-hand there is a lot of good work and support out there for us to find, but this is a subject that needs to be re-visited again and again to make sure we all know exactly when new services become available and where to find them.
I recently had a very interesting conversation with a man who feels there is not enough immediate life-changing support and treatment for mental health problems for both our emergency services personnel and our young people – the two groups of people probably most affected by the pandemic – so he has come up with his own bespoke support and treatment system that has, at the time of writing, just launched, and most certainly needs to be shouted about in these pages.
Antony Hurle served 21 years as both a retained and a wholetime firefighter. He was retained at his local fire station in Hampshire for the full 21 years, following in his father’s footsteps who served as a retained firefighter at the same station in Hampshire for 30 years before his son. Antony served most of his wholetime career in Hampshire, until in January 2019 he was promoted to Station Commander within the London Fire Brigade.
Only one month after his promotion, Antony’s world came crashing down around him when he experienced a severe bout of mental illness and was subsequently diagnosed with PTSD and depression. He openly admits that the cause of his breakdown was his “typical bloke” behaviour of never talking about all the harrowing scenarios he experienced in the course of his duty. What followed for Antony was a very difficult time that lost him his career and put a huge strain on his relationship with his family. He says: “I basically disappeared in both mentality and spirit.”
It is because of the love of his family and his deep sense of responsibility as a husband and a father that Antony is still here with us today. Instead of giving up, he has used his experience, and the experiences of so many other emergency workers who are struggling, to motivate himself to re-build his life and provide a lifeline for other sufferers of mental health problems.
Museum and Community Hub
The Fire Brigade Museum in Romsey, Hampshire, opened its doors to the public on April 8, 2022, and is so much more than the name suggests. The inspiration for this project comes from various sources that Antony has combined to offer an educational and historical Fire Service museum. It is a place of contact for emergency services’ personnel to access private mental health treatment, and a community hub and apprenticeship centre for young people struggling with confidence issues and mental health problems.
Antony intends to use all revenue from the museum to fund private mental health treatment for emergency services personnel. He understands from his own experiences how important it is to receive treatment sooner rather than later, and with mounting pressure on the NHS and other charities and organisations, private care will enable more immediate treatment. He encourages anyone who is struggling to reach out to the museum, which will also act as a community hub and a safe place for people to seek refuge. He says: “For me, it’s about helping people regain their health, their family relationships and their financial stability, and then get back to work.”
Young People Support
The museum is also helping to support young people who suffer with confidence issues and mental health problems. Antony witnessed his own daughter struggle through secondary school and recalls her decline with feelings of guilt because he himself was not mentally stable enough to be there for her. In recognition of the need to instil confidence and a sense of self-worth in young minds, the museum is working with Hampshire County Council’s Children’s Services Department to offer a range of apprenticeships to suit every individual. He says: “This is a perfect opportunity for young people who have low self-confidence and mental health issues. We are trying to be as broad as we can and offer apprenticeships in subjects like mechanics, carpentry, coach working, marketing and management. We’ve even got a volunteer who is qualified to train nail technicians.
“We’re giving young people the opportunity to come and learn at their own pace in an environment where everyone who volunteers here has either directly experienced mental health issues, or has a family member who has, so we all get it. We understand the triggers and we’re all mental health first-aiders.”
There will always be a trained counsellor on hand at the museum, and because Antony understands it is not always easy to ask for help, he has introduced a traffic-light card system for everyone on site to wear. Each person will have the individual choice of displaying either a green, amber or red card on their ID laminate around their necks to express how they are feeling at any given moment. This way, a young person who is feeling overwhelmed does not necessarily have to ask for help, but by displaying a red card, a counsellor or another volunteer can step in and offer support.
In addition to the specific mental health support, Antony is opening up volunteer work placements to people with learning difficulties and disabilities, encouraging inclusivity and instilling a good work ethic through contributing to the local community. The museum will also act as a welcome community hub for elderly locals who might struggle with feeling isolated and lonely. Antony hopes that the interaction between, for example, a retired mechanic and a young apprentice mechanic on-site might offer the opportunity for a friendly mentoring relationship to develop, giving companionship to one, and building confidence in the other.
Antony’s ideas and hopes for the museum abound with the underlying offer of unconditional mental health and social support, but none of this would be possible without the museum itself. Antony described himself as a “Spotter” who has been collecting fire engines, uniforms and lots of other historical Fire Service artefacts for many years. Most of the exhibits are from his own private collection, but he also receives donations from other collectors.
Covid-19 has delayed many of Antony’s plans, including securing funding from the National Lottery, who have been prioritising existing museums throughout the pandemic. Before the museum opened in Romsey, he was keen to secure a larger and more appropriate premises for the museum and its services. Offers of monetary donations did come in, but only to be paid after the opening of the museum. Stuck in a catch-22 situation he asked the local council what to do, and they advised him to open where he is for now, and then invite the donors to visit so they can see both the museum and the need for a larger premises. When I spoke to Antony, he explained this is exactly what he has done. The museum is now open to the public in Romsey, but he is still hoping to secure the funding to relocate to more suitable premises.
The museum covers firefighting history from the Great Fire of London in 1666 right up to the modern day, including an impressive display of more than 20 fire engines and the evolution of the firefighters’ uniform.
Both the Great Fire of London and the Blitz of World War II are in the education curriculum for primary schools which is sure to attract groups of school children to the museum. In addition to the current collection on these momentous events, Antony is planning to produce a 4D immersive experience on the Great Fire of London, where children can stand on a virtual Pudding Lane and watch the fire develop. They will feel the heat and see the smoke, but all in a safe and controlled environment. Antony hopes this experience will be preferable to schools re-enacting their own ‘Great Fires’ in the playground, which has become a popular activity among many primary schools, but also raises concerns about the risk of encouraging juvenile firesetting behaviour.
On July 30-31, the Fire Brigade Museum will be hosting the first South of England Fire Show at the stunning Norman Court in Hampshire. The exhibition will include a display of vintage fire engines, American police cars and military vehicles and there will be an array of artisan markets to browse. Antony explained that the funds raised at this event will support the objectives of the museum, and will enable the offer of private mental health treatment for emergency services personnel to begin.
To celebrate the Queen’s platinum jubilee this year, the Fire Brigade Museum will be displaying a photographic exhibition of all the visits The Queen has made to fire and rescue services and historical fire sites throughout her reign, including her visit to the Grenfell Tower site in London in 2017 and the fire at Windsor Castle in 1992.
With such an array of services, the Fire Brigade Museum promises to be a hive of activity. If you are local to Romsey in Hampshire, Antony is looking for more volunteers in the following roles: museum guides, fundraisers, mentors to apprentices, cadet instructors, heritage restoration, administration, and media and marketing. The museum is also on the lookout for sponsorship which would be most welcome from industries within the fire sector.
For more information, contact the museum at: firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit the website at: www.firebrigademuseum.com
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