Distressed firefighterFollowing a screening of the BAFTA award winning short film, Operator, FIRE Editor Andrew Lynch praises the pivotal work of control room personnel.

There is a moment during the BAFTA award winning short film, Operator, when the operator breathes a sigh of relief. For me, the understated power and dramatic release of that moment was what secured the award for the filmmakers. Watch it at: www.operatorshortfilm.com

Operator was part funded by the Fire Brigades Union and serves as a gripping and emotional rollercoaster of a ride in testament to the work of control room operators. Based upon the real-life incident (which was played immediately after last month’s screening at the Curzon Soho), the incident featured a mother and three-year-old son caught in a blaze. As the tension and the mother’s terror escalates the viewer watches the operator mobilise fire crews whilst guiding, encouraging, reassuring and supporting the panic-stricken mother. Game of Thrones actress Kate Dickie perfects the consummate professionalism of the operator whilst Broadchurch’s Vicky McClure eerily captures the trembling tone and real-life horror of the trapped mother.

SPOILER ALERT: The sigh comes at the end. There is silence, the rescue has been made. The phone has been cut off. A few seconds later the next call comes in and the job continues. The mundanity of every day heroism. There was some dramatic licence here. The control operator was fairly new to the job and was taken aside and given support. 

I asked the filmmakers – writer and director Caroline Bartleet and producer Rebecca Morgan – if the sigh was real. The woman in the seat in front of me said it was. It was the real control room operator, Sam Pendlebury, who sighed again – 16 years on – because moments like that cannot be forgotten.

The remarkable thing is that incidents like this are not exceptional. They are every day occurrences. The film serves as a startling rejoinder that anyone who considers a control room operator someone who just answers the phone, does not understand the first thing about the psychological fortitude required to sit in that seat. 

The fact that the majority are women who remain unseen and are frequently marginalised in Fire Service discussions, serves to highlight a gap that needs addressing.

As expected, FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack used the occasion to criticise control room cuts. The film also served to show the split-second timing necessary to save those lives – the fire crew had to be guided to exactly the right area and be there in time. The whole Service should come together to ensure those rescues can be made in future, regardless of the overarching structure. As CFOA President Paul Hancock told FIRE last year: “We have to collectively work together to ensure that public safety and firefighter safety remains a key part of our local risk management planning.” (FIRE October 2015).

What can we do about elevating the status and voice of control room operators in general – and women in particular – so they are heard in every discussion about the future direction of the Service? FIRE will start with the Most Influential Women in Fire Award at this year’s Excellence in Fire & Emergency Awards (see May issue of FIRE and fire-magazine.com). Control room operator entries most welcome.