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Always on call

Karl and Ruth Gray tell Claire Brine how The Salvation Army provides an emergency service

This summer has been busy because of grass fires

‘WHEN London Fire Brigade calls us out to respond to an emergency,’ says Ruth Gray, ‘we are allowed into a place where the general public can’t go. But the emergency services completely trust us. That’s our privilege as The Salvation Army.’ Ruth, along with her husband, Karl, serves on one of the Movement’s emergency response vehicles, providing refreshments to emergency services personnel who are attending incidents.

Every year, volunteer teams from The Salvation Army serve sandwiches, snacks and drinks to thousands of firefighters, police and ambulance crew members as they respond to major fires, floods and other emergencies across the UK.

In London, Captains Karl and Ruth Gray are responsible for running a Salvation Army church at Clapton, as well as working in Stoke Newington and Dalston – but they also dedicate countless hours to supporting the emergency services on the front line.

‘If my pager from the London Fire Brigade goes off, alerting me to an incident,’ explains Karl, ‘I won’t even finish a coffee. I just get up and go to wherever they direct me.’ Karl is the pan-London emergency response co-ordinator, responsible for managing The Salvation Army’s vehicle parked at Shoreditch fire station, as well as overseeing two other vehicles based at Bexleyheath and Acton.

‘Our vehicles are stocked with enough bread, cheese and corned beef to make sandwiches for up to 200 firefighters. We have crisps, chocolate bars and energy drinks to keep the crews hydrated. Our job is to support the emergency services by giving them refreshments, but also offering them a bit of time out from the pressure of whatever they are dealing with.’

This summer alone, Karl’s Shoreditch vehicle has been called out by London Fire Brigade 14 times. The three London-based vehicles have responded to 68 call-outs since January. Karl explains that The Salvation Army responds to any incident requiring more than eight fire engines.

‘This summer has been very busy because of the number of grass fires,’ he says. ‘Recently we were called out to an incident in Wanstead that required 40 fire engines. That was huge. But last year, Ruth and I served at the biggest disaster we’ve ever faced – Grenfell Tower. There were 80 fire engines that night. We kept an emergency vehicle on site for 14 days.’

Whether the emergencies attended by Salvation Army response teams make headline news or not, Karl and Ruth insist on treating every incident with an equal level of care and attention. They believe they are called upon to provide more than just a cup of tea.

Ruth says: ‘The relationships we build with the emergency services are strong. Many of them have got to know us and we chat with them. They tell us that when they see our vehicle arriving on site, it somehow makes life OK again.’

‘We always park next to the command unit, where the incident commander is operating from,’ adds Karl. ‘It means that when the crews are taking a break, they are standing near to us. Sometimes, as well as chatting with people, we might pray with them – if they want us to.’

As well as supporting the emergency services, Karl and Ruth have been asked to help victims at some incidents. In 2016, they served refreshments to families affected by a tram crash in Croydon. And about ten years ago, Ruth remembers helping a head teacher as she watched her school burning down.

‘She was absolutely distraught,’ Ruth recalls. ‘So I sat on the pavement with her and lent her my phone so she could call the people she needed to. I spend a lot of my time sitting on pavements with people. But I don’t say much. What can you say in devastating situations. It’s more about listening.’

After 13 years of responding to emergencies, Karl and Ruth have seen countless tragedies unfold. They remember approaching a burning Grenfell Tower and hearing the wails of people and the sound of parts of the building crashing to the ground. But with a steely determination, they remain resilient by reminding themselves of an important truth.

‘We are not the victims,’ Ruth says. ‘We are part of the hope. We go in as The Salvation Army and offer a little bit of respite in sometimes horrendous situations.

‘Over the years, the stories that have tended to stick in my head are not the bad ones, but the good ones. At Grenfell, when it was difficult to get the quantity of food that we needed, I rang a supermarket to ask for help. They filled a seven-and-a-half-tonne lorry with all the items I asked for and kindly donated it to us, saying: “If you need anything else, get in touch. We don’t want any publicity, thanks.”

‘It’s during the worst times that people can suddenly become very generous – and that’s what I’m thankful for. Such kindness makes a massive difference in an awful situation.’

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