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

Rodney Vitalis (right) collecting his 20 years’ long service and good conduct medal from former Lond

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

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.”

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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.”