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Comment: Fire service unfairly criticised over soggy squirrel saga
Somewhere roaming the verdant patches of Watford is arguably the most famous squirrel in the world.
Yet this bushy-tailed rodent is oblivious to its newly-acquired renown or the global media hullabaloo it inadvertently provoked when it took a near-fatal dip in Watford pond on Sunday.
Its assent to stardom began when passers-by were left aghast to see this soggy squirrel stranded on island in the middle of the water feature in The Parade.
The result was a 999 call to the emergency services as people started entering the pond in an attempt to rescue the forlorn creature.
Fire crews from Watford responded to the call with their standard response for reports of a person in water - in this case two fire engines and a water support appliance.
When the firefighters arrived they discovered there was no one in the pond except the aforementioned squirrel. However according to firefighters present, there was also a number of drunk people present threatening to jump in and rescue it.
One fire crew remained and decided to send one of their own in, dressed in waterproofs, to coax the squirrel onto a ladder and back onto dry ground.
Also present was a firefighter, who is also a photographer, and who took some shots of the squirrel making its sodden journey to safety. These pictures the fire service shared online via their Twitter feeds to let residents know what all the fuss had been about in the high street.
Yet they were unaware of chain of events this was about to set off.
The Watford Observer reported the story on Monday and after that it started to get picked up by national papers, which also used the fire services pictures of the rescue.
The slant of these stories was feigned shock that three fire engines had been enlisted to save a mere squirrel.
By Tuesday morning the story was in most of the national papers, including on the front page of the Sun, which lambasted the fire service for allegedly spending around £6,000 on the rescue operation. By then it was also starting to get picked up internationally and appeared as far as America, Spain and Australia.
In every publication the basic story was along the lines of ‘public sector gone mad, as three fire engines rush to aid of a squirrel’.
Details about why that many engines had attended, i.e. because the initial call had mentioned a person in the water, did not feature in these stories.
The result was Hertfordshire’s fire service, specifically firefighters in Watford, were pilloried on an international stage for what - when one looks at the chronology of events - appear to be perfectly sensible actions.
Had the fire crews who attended the call been callously officious and left on discovering the only thing to rescue was a squirrel the animal would most likely have died. Also there would have been a risk of drunk people clambering into the pond in a misguided attempt to save it.
At around 3ft at its deepest point, the pond is not the most life-threatening water feature. Yet I doubt this scenario would have a beneficial ending for either the squirrel or its inebriated would-be rescuers.
So having already taken themselves and their equipment to The Parade one crew decided to spend a couple of minutes to safely guide the animal dry land. The operation lasted around 15 minute and the fire service said the cost was only that of the petrol to drive to and from the job.
In this light, taking the short time to get the squirrel out of the pond seems to have been the sensible course of action. It is certainly not a decision that warranted the international ridicule it prompted.
The fire service has said that had there been another call to an incident during the time spent rescuing the squirrel, then the crew would have of course attended that immediately. But there was not.
Firefighters do not spend every minute of the day battling towering infernos or pulling injured people from the wreckage of crashed cars. As someone who calls the local stations regularly, I know there are quiet days.
These tend to be filled with firefighters practising their life-saving skills so they are sharp and ready for when they are called into use.
They are also the men and women who will walk into a burning building to save us or our loved ones, should we ever find ourselves in such an unimaginably terrifying situation.
The fire service is not beyond criticism. But it has been unedifying this week to see firefighters unfairly lampooned across the world for simply doing their job.