Borough fire chief Rodney Vitalis on growing up in Hackney – and why he chose the brigade over playing for Arsenal

PUBLISHED: 12:00 25 December 2017

Rodney Vitalis (right) collecting his 20 years’ long service and good conduct medal from former London Fire Commissioner Ron Dobson. Picture: London Fire Brigade

Rodney Vitalis (right) collecting his 20 years’ long service and good conduct medal from former London Fire Commissioner Ron Dobson. Picture: London Fire Brigade


Rodney Vitalis is Hackney’s most senior firefighter. He tells Emma Bartholomew why he didn’t want to join the police – and how he spent a year phoning the fire brigade to ask for a job before anyone picked up

Rodney Vitalis wanted to become a professional footballer before he decided to go into firefighting.

Rodney, Hackney’s interim fire chief, grew up on four different council estates in Hackney and was scouted by Arsenal aged 15.

“I thought I’d made it but it’s quite competitive,” said the 51-year-old father-of-two, whose mum is from St Lucia and dad from Antigua.

He played semi-professionally until he was 26, alongside “odd jobs here and there” – but he wanted to find something that would really challenge him.

“I thought about the army, and I was a bit young,” he said.

“I thought about the ambulance service, and the pay wasn’t great. I thought about the police, but growing up in Hackney it would be a strange career to go into knowing some of the people I was friends with off duty I might have to arrest on duty.”

But he decided the fire service would be perfect.

“It was the excitement of the job – it was sport-oriented, and mentally and physically challenging, and it’s all about team work,” he said.

But it wasn’t plain sailing. He had to phone up the recruitment line every day for a whole year before his perseverance finally paid off and someone answered the phone. He began training in 1995. The first simulated fire he put out was “very hot”.

“It’s a little bit uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. The adrenaline gets going, and that’s when you start relying on your training. It is all about how you manage your emotions and your fears and get the job done.”

But putting out real-life fires was even more taxing.

“You are dealing with stuff that’s not planned,” he said. “It’s very dynamic.

“Going in with good crews, they take you under their wing, and that’s when your training really starts. The more you are exposed to it, the better you are at doing the job.”

Since October 2014 he has been station manager at Shoreditch, Homerton and Stoke Newington, and is hoping his application to be the permanent borough commander for Hackney will be successful.

“I feel privileged to be in the role I’m in,” he said. “Twenty-three years ago, when I applied to join the fire service, I wouldn’t have believed that I’d be in the position I am now. I’m invested in working in Hackney because I grew up here.”

Latest Hackney Stories

7 minutes ago

The 32-year-old offered an honest assessment on Saturday’s clash between O’s and Boreham Wood

Justin Edinburgh praised Craig Clay after the victory over Boreham Wood and provided an update on James Brophy

Continental Tyres Cup Group One South: Crystal Palace Ladies 1 Tottenham Hotspur Ladies 1 (5-4 after penalties)

23 minutes ago

A left-turn ban from Mare Street into Richmond Road has resulted in 13,819 tickets being dished out in just two months, the Gazette can reveal.


Sporting Bengal United were held for a point in an eight goal thriller against new boys Saffron Walden at Catons Lane this weekend.


A pop-up bar has lived up to its description over the last five years, having moved around Shoreditch, Dalston, Hackney Wick and London Fields. Now Night Tales is staying put.


A former police office and Stoke Newington RAF cadet is now serving his country in another way – after his call handling start-up app was given permission to be contracted by the government.


Health chiefs in Hackney will hold their AGM next month explaining future plans for services in the borough.


To celebrate LGBT history month, Hackney resident Amanda talks about her journey to becoming a foster carer, with the council’s support and training.

Education and Training


Read the
Education and Training
e-edition today

Read Now

Newsletter Sign Up

Hackney Gazette twice-weekly newsletter
Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Most read news

Show Job Lists