Midhurst firefighter Nigel protecting the community for 40 years

Firefighters, Nigel Gamblen, his son Matthew and father Dennis, who between them have been firefighting for 85 years.Picture by Kate Shemilt.C141080-7 SUS-140312-104119001
Firefighters, Nigel Gamblen, his son Matthew and father Dennis, who between them have been firefighting for 85 years.Picture by Kate Shemilt.C141080-7 SUS-140312-104119001

WHEN firefighter Nigel Gamblen started out, crews used wooden ladders and wore plastic leggings and cork helmets.

Now Midhurst station manager Nigel is celebrating 40 years in the fire and rescue service, having joined up on December 2, 1974, at the age of 18.

Midhurst firefighters past and present unite for Nigel's 40-year anniversary SUS-140212-134517001

Midhurst firefighters past and present unite for Nigel's 40-year anniversary SUS-140212-134517001

And it was a milestone for three generations of the Gamblen family, who, between them, have notched up 85 years in the fire service.

Asked if he would do the job over again, Nigel responds instantly, ‘without a doubt’.

“Forty years feels like ten.

“I have no plans to retire yet and it’s going to be an awful day when I have to hang up my helmet.

Dennis Gamblen shows Nigel the ropes back in the 1970s SUS-140312-104435001

Dennis Gamblen shows Nigel the ropes back in the 1970s SUS-140312-104435001

“There are not a lot of professions where you love getting up everyday.

“The camaraderie is second to none, we are a close-knit family.

“This is one of the best jobs in the world.

“People come up to you and say ‘thank you’, though they might have lost everything.

“I would do everything I could to get into a building to save somebody’s life, and their possessions. I’ve served with around 60 firefighters in Midhurst.

“I’ve had the privilege to serve with some wonderful, first class people.”

Nigel became a firefighter in 1974, working quickly up the ranks to become a leading firefighter in 1978 - one of the youngest in the county.

He also spent a number of years in the army fire service. He was made sub-officer in 1982, and station officer in 1987, and has been in charge ever since.

The career path has been followed by three Gamblens – Nigel’s father Dennis from 1950-1982, and now his son, Matthew.

“I grew up around the service in the 1950s and 1960s. My dad used to come home with fantastic stories. I served with him for a few years, and for a few months I was his boss which was a funny experience.”

Matthew joined in 2002, and is now crew manager at Midhurst. “It’s a strange feeling where you have to send your son into a burning building, but I have had to do it.

“I sent him into a house once and it was so hot, his helmet melted. It’s part of the job.”

Nigel has seen some drastic changes. “Midhurst has had three different fire stations. We had bells in the house and a siren at St Anne’s Hill. We wore plastic leggings, wellington boots, a cork helmet and carried an axe on our belt.

“It’s a shame they got rid of that, I quite liked carrying an axe. Firefighter deaths were high then and people were dying in house fires every week.

“Now we go out in the community to make sure the public are safe.”

But less than a year into his career, it nearly ended.

“In 1975, there was a huge fire in West Lavington Hill House and it was the closest I ever came to dying.

“The ceiling started to crumble. My colleague just shoved me out of the way.”

One incident Nigel will never forget is the 1989 Easebourne coach crash, which killed four children and two teachers. “It is even worse when children are involved. I still have flashbacks of that scene, it will always be in my subconscious.

“My father went to the Spanish airliner crash at Blackdown Hill.

“Everybody on board had been killed. There were sheep on fire and body parts in a pond. He didn’t speak for two weeks.

“Because you are living and working in the same community, you can get a call-out and know the person involved.

“After a bad incident, everyone sits down at the station and has a cup of tea. We talk about it. I always make sure every firefighter is okay before they leave.

“You must have the support of your family.”

“But we do have funny call-outs. Many of my firefighters have been scratched by cats up trees, and one had to catch a chicken stuck on a roof.

“One lady said she was holding a hand grenade – which turned out to be a door knob. We laugh afterwards.”

Nigel is now planning to write a book based on his experiences: “I have recorded every call I have been to, and written notes.”