A firefighter was pinned to a wall when the ceiling collapsed in a burning house on Toxteth's Welsh Streets.
Lee Hunter, 44, said: "It was surreal. I didn't see it coming. It sort of flapped, so part of it was still attached and it pushed me into the wall. The other firefighter I was with, we look back and laugh about it now because he actually said to me, 'Just stay there a minute'."
Realising how different that story could have been, the 44-year-old dad from Aigburth vomited behind a fire engine after his colleague cut him out with an axe. Lee wanted to be a firefighter since he was a kid, being drawn to the hero status of a "professional problem solver", but the job can put a huge amount of stress on the minds and bodies of firefighters who enter buildings prepared to give their lives to save others.
More than 60% of firefighters have personal experience of mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety, and 65% said their mental health had gotten worse since the start of the pandemic, according to a survey by mental health charity Mind last year.
Lee said: "I don't like the old stereotypes with firefighters at all. You know, they're meant to be big, strong characters who deal with everything, we see blood, snot and tears every day, and we just get on with it. I totally dislike that because we're normal people. We feel the effects like everyone else does."
He said he's seen a rise in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among his colleagues in recent years, but he's not sure if it's becoming more prevalent or if people are just more aware of it. The same Mind survey found a larger majority of fire service staff, compared to police and ambulance staff, were aware of mental health support offered by their organisation and found it useful.
Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service offers a debrief and critical incident stress management to firefighters returning from a job. Lee made use of access to external counsellors, and last year, he took three months off work due to the stress of both the job and his role as an elected Fire Brigades Union (FBU) official, which he initially sidelined when covid hit and he returned to the fire engine full-time.
After 16 years as a firefighter, Lee says his knees 'click and clack' where once he contorted himself through windows above doors with relative ease. He still loves helping people, but Lee asks: "Can I see myself doing that in 10 or 15 years time? Probably not."
Fighting fires exposes them to carcinogens that contribute to higher risk of cancer among firefighters, according to researchers at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). The researchers found firefighters are four times as likely as the average working person to get cancer in their working life, with skin, head and neck cancers being particularly common.
They have double the risk of having mesothelioma, a cancer linked to asbestos exposure. It's rarely possible to cure this cancer, but symptoms can be managed with treatment, according to the NHS. Lee told the ECHO: "Within a year [of retiring], I've seen firefighters pass away through cancer, and it's heartbreaking because they're young men and women. The studies show that it's linked to what they've done, which has been to help their communities."
The FBU and UCLan are working together to understand the link between fire contaminants and cancer, so they can better protect firefighters and their families. With contaminants able to be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin - even more so as body temperature increases - the union launched a campaign to encourage firefighters to wash their kit and to shower thoroughly as soon as they return from incidents.
While £31,000 per year as a starter salary for a fully trained firefighter is "not an inconsiderable amount of money", Lee feels it doesn't compensate for the roles and risks taken on by firefighters, from running into burning buildings to helping with relief efforts after floods.
He said: "Firefighters all over the UK and all over the world undertake flood rescue. There is no legal obligation [in England] for firefighters to undertake that, but it's the right thing to do. For the roles that we fulfill, I believe the pay should be reflective of that. The skills that firefighters have, and the roles that they undertake, should be rewarded."