Watch commander retires from full-time duties - Fenland

A watch commander at Wisbech Fire Station is retiring from his wholetime duties after a lengthy career with Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service (CFRS) - but will return a month later to provide on-call cover.

Phil Pilbeam, 52, who has been with CFRS for 23 years, has been stationed at Wisbech Fire Station three times in his fire service career – the last 11 of which have been as watch commander of both wholetime and on-call crews.

Chief Fire Officer Chris Strickland presented Phil with a figurine at on Monday (September 4) to mark his retirement.

He said: “Phil brought his RAF training with him and has demonstrated his exemplary organisational skills throughout his time in the fire service. Whether it be an emergency call-out, or an exercise he has organised, Phil can always be relied on to help make a job run smoothly.”

Phil spent 10 years as a military firefighter with the RAF and MOD before joining the Service in 1994. During his time in the military he was stationed in the UK as well as overseas, serving in several countries including the Falklands and Canada.

After joining CFRS, he was stationed at Huntingdon and Wisbech before being temporarily promoted to watch commander at the Service’s training centre in Huntingdon. He then became a crew commander, based at Dogsthorpe, before returning to Wisbech. He was promoted to watch commander and moved to Stanground before transferring to Wisbech, where he has been based since 2006.

Phil said one of the benefits of living in the same place where he works is being able to walk to work, which he has done nearly every day for the past 11 years. 

He said the experience of having a fire at his own home in Wisbech has given him a real empathy for people he helps in the same situation.

“One of my most memorable moments in the fire service is when I had my own garage fire. It was quite embarrassing because my wife had been away, I’d popped to the pub and someone came to tell me my garage was on fire. I ran all the way to the fire station so quickly that I could have caught Usain Bolt!  When I got home I was greeted by two fire engines fighting a fully-developed fire in my garage. I was off duty so I didn’t help fight the fire but it completely destroyed my garage.”

Phil said there have been good times and bad times, because of some of the incidents he has attended, but says he would recommend the job to any young person thinking of becoming a firefighter.

“It is a very rewarding job. I would recommend it to anybody who wanted to join the fire service.”

Other highlights of his career have involved successful training exercises he has helped organise – including Exercise Poseidon, the Service’s first exercise on board a Russian ship at Wisbech Port, working with a Russian crew on a simulated fire in the engine room.

He said another memorable training exercise was Exercise Saving Peckover House, where the crew had to salvage valuable artefacts from the National Trust property as part of an exercise looking at what firefighters would do in the event of a fire.

Phil will take a month off work before returning in his current role as an on-call watch commander. However, his new shift patterns mean that although he will work longer hours one week it will give him more time off the following week.

During his days off, Phil hopes to buy a camper van and tour the UK with his wife, Sarah, as well as pursue his passion as an open water swimmer, taking part in more events. Phil, who has a stepdaughter Lauren, 22, and a daughter Emily, 21, would also like to visit Portman Road stadium more regularly, the home of his favourite football club Ipswich Town.

Station Commander Brett Mills, who worked with Phil for two years at Wisbech Fire Station, said: “Phil has been an integral part of Wisbech Fire Station for many years.

“He joined CFRS after a good career as a RAF firefighter and brought the high RAF standards with him.

“His commitment to the Service is unquestionable and he has played a key role in ensuring the residents of Wisbech remain safe.

“As well as being a wholetime watch commander, Phil also stepped up to be the on-call watch commander some years ago. His experience and leadership have been put to good use and he has certainly helped many people in their time of need. It’s great that Phil is going to continue in his on-call role and I look forward to seeing him still wearing a CFRS uniform.”

On-call firefighters are trained professionals who respond to emergencies in their communities alongside their day-to-day lives. To find out more about becoming an on-call firefighter in Cambridgeshire search “Cambs on-call” online.