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View from the Frontline: the firefighter delivering PPE

London Fire Brigade worker Winston Douglas on delivering PPE to organisations in need all over the city.

Isabelle Aron
Written by
Isabelle Aron

I’ve been a fire officer for 32 years. I retired in 2016 and for the last two and half years I’ve been training firefighters how to use our new trucks. We had to stop training because of social-distancing rules.

I’d had about a week off and I was at home when I saw one of my neighbours looking really distraught. I asked him what had happened and he said: ‘Oh Winston, my mum has died from coronavirus’. She’d died that morning. They live about eight or nine doors down from me. While we were talking, and I was in shock at what he was telling me, we started hearing someone really crying. It was my next-door neighbour crying in her garden, she was literally on her knees. I ran over and asked what was wrong. She said her husband Sidney had died of coronavirus that morning as well. Sidney was one of my best friends, a fantastic guy. So two of my neighbours died on the same day: Monday April 6, I’ll never forget it.

That night I was up late thinking about everything that had happened. At 19 minutes past midnight, I got a text message from my previous boss from when I was a station commander. He said: ‘Winston, we need your special set of skills because we’ve been given all the PPE emergency supplies for London.’ A minute later I replied saying: ‘I’m ready to start now.’ He sent me a thumbs up and I started at 7am the following morning. 

On my first day, we distributed 284,620 items of PPE. If you think that was epic, I was just warming up. On the second day, we distributed 759,480 items. It’s just carried on from there. Last week we hit the 10 million mark – that’s 10 million pieces of PPE, whether that be gloves, masks, aprons, face masks, visors or hand sanitiser. 

Our distribution centre is a top-secret warehouse in Croydon. We supply to 32 London boroughs including the City, as well as TfL, pharmacies, GPs, doctor’s surgeries, care homes, every kind of healthcare provider. We’ve had a big rush of orders from dentists recently as they’ve been allowed to reopen this week.

We’ve called it the Operation Seacole distribution hub, named after Mary Seacole, the famous nurse from Jamaica. She set up a hospital during the Crimean war when the government wouldn’t fund her to help the British soldiers because she was black. She set it up herself with her own money, she’s an extraordinary woman. So Operation Seacole is the distribution of emergency PPE across London by the London Fire Brigade.

I normally get sent the orders the night before, so I send those to what I call the Seacole girls: that’s my partner Sharon, my sister Lorna and my daughter Dominique. Because they’re all on lockdown, I got them to do all the admin work, so I send them the orders and they make proper order forms, email them back to me and I print them here, and every driver gets two copies. It’s a really essential part of the work and they’ve been doing that for eight weeks now, voluntarily. I couldn’t do it without them.

I have to be in for 7am. Deliveries are normally first thing and I’ve had days when there are 30 pallets delivered or three deliveries in a day. After I unload the deliveries, I make up the orders and wait for the drivers to start turning up, normally around 10am. The drivers are operational firefighters. We load up all the vehicles and get most of our loads out by midday or 1pm, so if people put in their order by 4pm or 5pm, they’ll get their order the next day. We’re better than Amazon Prime!

I run the hub so I don’t really do many deliveries, but if a late order comes in or someone phones up and says we really need an order to a pharmacy in Brixton, for example, somewhere in south London, I’ll deliver it to them in my car at the end of the day. I delivered to a doctor’s surgery once and the woman was so grateful – it’s so nice to deliver to these people who need the PPE to serve the people of London. We’re here to help these people make a difference and we must never lose sight of that. 

I’ve worked pretty much seven days a week for the last eight weeks. I don’t think I’ve had more than five days off in the last eight weeks. But it’s been rewarding. I’m so passionate about it. I love the fact that someone’s given me the opportunity to serve the whole city, the people that I’m passionate about. I don’t know what could be better.

I’ve supplied PPE to over 650 different locations, so now when I’m out, there aren’t many places I see which we haven’t made a delivery to. It makes me feel good to go past the pharmacies in Brixton, Streatham, Clapham, Croydon – the areas near where I live – and know that I’ve helped to keep them running. Especially when I see Croydon hospital, where my neighbour passed away, and I know that we’ve supplied to that hospital. It’s all making a massive difference in this pandemic and that’s what it’s all about, working together to keep each other safe.

It’s a massively physical job. I used to go to the gym every day before I’d teach the training sessions. So now, this is kind of my way of doing that – moving all those boxes is a workout, believe me, I am sweating! 

I work long hours, generally from 7am to 7pm. I now go to bed about 9.30pm. I used to go to bed around 1am, I’d never seen my bed at 9.30pm before!

The hub is a really big warehouse so it lends itself to social distancing and everyone is so conscious of it now. I’ve got stickers in the warehouse which say: ‘Only a fool breaks the two-metre rule.’ Stay alert? What does that mean? It should be: ‘Only a fool breaks the two-metre rule’, simple!

The drivers who go out and do the deliveries from [our] headquarters have been phenomenal. You’ve got to remember, people have fears and reservations and they’re concerned about going back to their young families, they might be worried about going to these places to deliver PPE. I want to make sure we take our hats off to them and recognise the sacrifices they’re making. We’ve worked as a phenomenal team to drive this forward and make a real difference. I’m super proud.

London is the greatest city in the world, so we’ve got to step up. I’m so passionate about this city, I love this city. 10 million items in eight weeks, who else could do that? To be a part of this is unbelievable. 

Read more from this series:

View from the Frontline: the TfL worker.

View from the Frontline: the Deliveroo rider.

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