When firefighters head inside burning buildings, they always do it in twos. Mark Schofield, a veteran fireman from Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire, has been doing this for years, and it’s about as close to a medieval conception of Hell as any of us will ever experience.
“Once you’re inside it’s just black,” he says. “You feel the heat even through your gear. You’re in pure smoke that’s contained within the building, so everything is dark. If you’ve got your torch you’ll probably see a couple of feet in front.”
With breathing gear on your back and a mask on your face, you trudge into the darkness, finding your way by tracing a hand along the walls. The more frightened you feel, the lower your chance of making it out. “Your heart’s pounding, so you start breathing quicker, then you look at your gauges, and you think: ‘If I carry on like this I’m going to run out of air.’”
You can be as experienced as Mark, who has led his local station for seven years, and still find yourself wondering whether this fire will be your last. “Those thoughts will always be there,” he says. “You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have them. But you’ve got to push them to the back of your mind and let your training take over.”
Mark and his teams negotiate these dangers professionally. Sometimes, though, the traumas they encounter at work begin to follow them home, and become demons they have to fight alone. Mark and I are sitting at his kitchen table, mugs in hand, with his wife, Teresa, leaning against the kitchen counter, and although he’s just told me what it’s like to walk into a burning building, we’re not really here to talk about firefighting. We’re here to talk about post-traumatic stress disorder, which struck him last year.
Since joining the service in the Eighties as a school-leaver, Mark had never experienced any of the symptoms of PTSD. The things he’d seen in that time had stayed with him, however, deep within his psyche. One incident, a couple of years ago, seemed to uncork them.
It was an assignment that came with no warning, but then none of them do. Mark is one of the UK’s 18,000 retained firefighters, a title that means he, like his colleagues at Wotton-under-Edge’s fire station, trains one evening a week and is on call for the rest of it. Whether he’s sleeping, showering, or going about the business of his day job managing council properties, Mark drops everything when his pager goes off, and then returns to his normal routine. Once the job is done and the firefighters have debriefed over a cup of tea, they return to their normal routines, no matter what horrors they’ve witnessed.
The incident that triggered Mark’s PTSD began with a summons to the scene of a collision. Within five minutes of his pager buzzing, Mark was behind the wheel of a fire engine, hurtling towards the crash site with three colleagues alongside him. His mind would normally be focused on the job, but he was suddenly preoccupied by paranoia that it was Teresa, who he knew to have been in their car that afternoon, who had been hit.
Like all firefighters, Mark carries a pager with him at all times, and one day, as so often, it buzzed. Whether he’s sleeping, showering, or going about the business of his day job managing council properties, Mark drops everything when his pager goes off. This time he’d been summoned to the scene of a collision, and within minutes was behind the wheel of a fire engine, hurtling towards the crash site with three colleagues alongside him. His mind would normally be focused on the job, but he was suddenly preoccupied by paranoia that it was Teresa, who he knew to have been in their car that afternoon, who had been hit.
All the way there, he thought about what it would mean if it was her, how he’d cope, how his life would change. When they arrived, Mark saw it wasn’t the family car that had been hit, and that the victim was someone else, not his wife but a young man whose parents Teresa knew. “The elation I felt was immense, just immense,” he remembers. “Yes! It’s not her!”
They tried to revive the young man and couldn’t. Meanwhile, news of the crash was spreading on social media. Suddenly the young man’s mother arrived. Because her son was dead, the site had by default become a crime scene, which meant she wasn’t allowed to see the body. She began crying and screaming. “It was just horrendous. That’s what eventually tipped me over.”
Mark couldn’t stop thinking about that day. He felt overwhelming guilt for his initial happiness on discovering that it wasn’t Teresa in the car. He tried to blame others and became irritable. Things started bringing back memories. The stench of petrol from a lawnmower summoned scenes of road accidents. The crunch of gravel reminded him of the sensation of giving CPR. The smell of stir-fried pork became so evocative of the smell of a decaying corpse that Mark couldn’t eat it and still doesn’t.
From this point, he says, “everything spiralled out of control”. As Mark recounts the worsening symptoms of his PTSD, his expressive gesturing begins to subside, and he clasps his hands together. Teresa occasionally chips in with her own memories of the arduous two years that followed the crash. Together they relate Mark’s harrowing transformation into a person largely unrecognisable from the gentle, industrious husband with whom Teresa had raised two children.
“He was always an upbeat person,” she says. “Then he started going downhill, being miserable, being moody, not doing jobs. He just stood around. He was argumentative.”
Mark has similar memories of this period. He would find himself staring into space, coming to his senses with no recollection of how much time had passed. He’d snap at the children (Jordan, now 20, and Danni, 23), suffer from trembling hands, and lie inert for hours on the sofa he used to get sooty after coming home late from putting out fires. Teresa, a primary schoolteacher, encouraged him to get through lists of tasks, or even just to drive around the block rather than stay in the house all day, but eventually became so despondent that she’d stay late at work rather than come home. Mark began taking himself for walks. Both of them wondered whether he’d kill himself.
Part of the problem was that Mark had been inculcated as a young firefighter with the idea that those who experience trauma should just get on with the job. But he’d eventually taken himself to a doctor. One night in June 2017, when they were coming home from a Coldplay concert, Mark had complained of pains in his chest. Teresa told him to see their GP, and he came home with a PTSD diagnosis.
Soon he’d been signed off work, both at the council and at the fire station, and given medication, but it hadn’t stopped the symptoms that had taken over his life. The diagnosis, Teresa recalls, “made the world just stop spinning.” Months passed, and his sick leave turned to half-pay, and half-pay turned to quarter-pay. When you’re married to a PTSD sufferer, Teresa says, “it’s so hard to understand what they’re going through. They’re a totally different person to who they were before, and you don’t know why they’re like that, why they’re behaving so differently.”
Her husband was aware of the effect that his illness has having on his family. “I just couldn’t see the point of going on,” he says.
All this time, and since the beginning of his career as a firefighter, Mark had been raising money for the Fire Fighters Charity with colleagues at the station, as well as sending them a portion of his salary. But it was only when an occupational health adviser suggested it that he thought to seek the charity’s help. He sent them an email and one of their team rang him back. Over the phone, he explained how he’d been signed off sick from work with PTSD. It was plain that Mark needed the charity’s intervention, and he was invited to Harcombe House, its recovery centre in Devon.
In idyllic surroundings, Mark was given a tailored programme of gym work, swimming and hiking, as well as two hours a day of psychological therapy. The therapist told him that the bereaved mother at the roadside was almost holding him a prisoner in his own mind. Mark came back a week later. “I was probably a lot better than when I went down, wasn’t I?” he asks Teresa. (He often checks things with her, and vice versa.)
“A lot better,” she confirms. Just being diagnosed had been helpful, and so had Jordan and Danni’s light-hearted teasing, asking their shaky-handed father to pass them glasses of water and pots of salt. The ribbing, as well as the treatment, helped but he still wasn’t fit to return to duty.
He was finally hauled out of his hole by another suggestion from the occupational health adviser: EMDR, or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing. EMDR, which Mark was given on a second trip to Harcombe House, is a relatively new treatment for PTSD and one whose workings are not fully understood. It involves the patient following the motion of the therapist’s finger while they discuss the trauma that brought on the illness.
“I could have kissed the therapist non-stop.” He sighs in wonder. “I don’t know what she did or how she did it.” Until the end of the week, Mark was given a daily session of EMDR. He returned to Wotton-under-Edge with the feeling he had overcome his illness.
That isn’t to say that he felt normal, or that he ever will. “I don’t think I’m ever going to be 100 per cent,” he says, and Teresa agrees that he’s still not quite the person he was. He’s not as patient as he used to be, she says, but she has her husband back, the station has its manager back, and Mark has himself back. The charity, he says, “has got me back in a straight line.”
Mark takes me to the station to watch him lead the weekly training session. As they line up in front of him, there’s smiling and laughter. After checking their pagers, the firefighters head out to their floodlit car park, using the tower to rehearse scaling a burning building. Mark looks on with the quiet satisfaction of a man who is glad to be back at work.