Tuesday, November 20, 2012

French firemen

I'll never look at the Eiffel Tower in the same way again. Last night I caught half a programme about the grimpeurs, or 'climbing', firemen of Paris. I've seen local Proven├žal firemen in action, struggling against hillside fire at night, and I guess Provence may have its equivalent service - but the guys filmed in Paris were something else.

They're trained to intervene wherever heights are involved in saving life. Hence when I turned on the telly there was a young firemen doing a tightrope walk on an Eiffel Tower girder, hundreds of feet above the ground. At night. He wore a harness, and a dozen colleagues were perched on nearby girders, one tethered to him by a rope. The idea is that if the guy walking falls then the guy tethered to him jumps, in a split second, on the opposite side so that neither of them fall very far.

The object of the exercise was a 25-year old Israeli, a would-be suicide who had decided, as many do, to end it all with a Tower leap. The fireman edged close to him, talking reassuringly, offering him a blanket. Told him whatever the problem was there were people who cared for him (including, clearly, the men risking their lives.) The young man said he didn't want a blanket, didn't want to talk. He put a foot out in thin air, testing the not-ground. Apparently, this is one of the signs that makes the firemen most anxious. The would-be jumpers who stick a foot into space are often ready to go. In this case, the man suddenly jumped and the firemen leapt from the girders, rushing down to the restaurant roof where he'd fallen. The task had changed in a second from preventing the jump to emergency care. But there was nothing to be done. The youngster lay on his back, chest bare where the fall had ripped his shirt, not moving.

The climbers trooped back to their station to talk the events through and come to terms with the result. The next day they were back on the Tower, roped and harnessed, saving a young woman who was not so resolute.

The next drama was in a block of flats. A man who had eaten himself so fat that he couldn't get out of his apartment was dying of heart disease and needed to get to intensive care. He would have to be brought down somehow from the 8th floor. The chief fireman glanced around the building inside and out, then headed for the roof. He ordered two other guys to fix ropes and drop over the building's side. Then the team hoisted the patient through a skylight, attached ropes to his stretcher, and lowered him to the ground, steadied by the firemen abseiling slowly down on either side of him. Oh, and they had to keep him perfectly level throughout the drop as tilting could have killed him.

Next stop - two blokes at a sports stadium stuck up a 100 foot pole where they were repairing lighting. Their small cage/lift broke down and there they were, boiling gently in the midday summer sun. The team, clocking the pole as being perfectly smooth and unassailable, called a helicopter and dropped two firemen on the roof of the cage, Towering Inferno style. The idea was that the firemen would grab the workers and all four would be lifted back into the chopper. Except that the helicopter left immediately for a life-and-death situation elsewhere in the city. So the extremely brave climbers each harnessed and roped a nervous worker to them and then descended the ropes in thin air, chatting casually to the men they were rescuing. Once they were all down one of the firemen went up his rope again, yard after yard, using nothing but his own strength, to detach his colleague's rope and then descend bringing his own down after him.

As well as knowing ropes and harnesses inside out, and having no fear about dropping off the side of a tower block, these men train daily to stay in peak physical condition - also known as looking like SuperHeroes and god's gift to women. They spend 'down time' scaling weird modern buildings and hanging off the side of bridges. They swim, play team sports and follow arduous routines at the gym. Before each shift they all line up in front of a wall from which a ledge sticks out, higher than any of them. Each man has to jump (not run and jump), get his arms onto the ledge, then swing and hoist himself up on to the ledge. (Try it at home.) If a guy can't do it, he doesn't go on shift.

The filming showed glimpses of these men's home lives. One of the most experienced men is married to a beautiful woman, and has 2 sweet kids. His wife said that she knows he risks his life daily and has chosen to live with that. How does she cope with it? "I get on with my work, look after the children, and hope he'll make it home each day."

Another marriage didn't fare so well. Another very experienced fireman sat on a bench with his cute 10-year old daughter. Mum and dad got divorced, she said, because dad was never home and mum was always worried about him. Mum said he was always saving 'other people'. The firemen smiled sadly and said that even if he'd known his marriage would end in divorce because of his work, he would still have chosen to do this job. Why? He hesitated a bit. Being part of this team, he said. Putting your life in the other guys' hands. Having their lives in yours. Saving people.

His little girl beamed with pride.

"My dad saves lives all the time" she said.