Danger at work

In her latest book Into Danger: Risking Your Life for Work, Sunderland’s front-liner, former war correspondent Kate Adie admits that when you’re in the thick of it, every situation is ‘bloody terrifying’.

In her latest book Into Danger: Risking Your Life for Work, Sunderland’s front-liner, former war correspondent Kate Adie admits that when you’re in the thick of it, every situation is ‘bloody terrifying’. But fear is a very personal perception, as the steeplejack, the diver and the bodyguard all testify.

“There are different kinds of fear. I could describe half a dozen different kinds. The main thing is to acknowledge that you get frightened. Denying it is when you can get into a lot of trouble.”

KATE Adie should know. Even though she left the battlefield 20 years ago, the enduring image is of her standing in a war zone, unflinching in a flak jacket with a microphone in hand. But as she points out, the rules of engagement for her as a journalist were somewhat different to that of the squaddies around her. “The assumption seems to be that journalists and soldiers share the same dangers and therefore share the same decisions about risk. But we have different obligations. The military system ... lays down that your duty is to head towards the objective. The hack has a completely different objective, which lies in the opposite direction: to get the story back, way behind the lines. If you decided to do and were to die, you would have failed in your objective. No story.”

However phlegmatic about personal risk she may appear, there are plenty of real-life examples of journalists who have done and died: more than 100 in Iraq alone.

“After I’d written my autobiography, a lot of people said, ‘Oh, you must have a dangerous job’,” says Kate.

“I would say, ‘Well, only if you make mistakes and the unexpected happens’. I never woke up in the morning and thought: What’s the danger going to be this morning? I wonder what’s lurking around the corner. It just wasn’t part of how the job was.”

Consequently, there is no chapter in her fourth book headed The Chief News Correspondent, which could easily have drawn upon her dodgy expeditions to Tripoli after the American bombing in 1986, Kuwait after the Iraqis were turfed out in 1990, Rwanda where she reported on the genocide, or Tiananmen Square after the student massacre. Her last assignment was in the Gulf War. Instead, there are chapters devoted to The Snake Venom Collector, The Diver, The Armed Robber, The Prostitute and The Bomb Disposal Officer, all of whom reveal differing perceptions of danger.

She was never a daredevil, Kate insists, looking back on her childhood in Sunderland. The war had recently ended, the grown-ups didn’t want to talk about it, and “danger belonged to the past”.

In the book she notes that her degree subject at Newcastle University, Scandinavian studies, “qualified me for a massively important national role – should the Vikings ever invade us again”.

But her eventual choice of profession wasn’t exactly flower arranging, was it?

“There have been moments, yes there have,” she allows.

Tiananmen Square was one of them. She recalls that it was such a huge story that normal safety-first rules were compromised.

“A lot of TV people assumed the action would be in the square itself so they stayed in their hotels, which were nearby. But actually a lot of shooting took place in the streets around the square, which is where we were.”

She certainly doesn’t count herself as a hero. But it’s a title she would readily ascribe to men like diver Gie Couwenbergh who saved dozens of lives in the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, and the “wonderful” bomb disposal pioneer Stuart Archer, now in his 90s.

Both are the subjects of crisply written and often hair-raising chapters in the book.

Kate reported on the Herald of Free Enterprise tragedy and writes with particular admiration for Gie.

A lot of the people who live with danger are regular guys, like him, she says.

But you could hardly say that about the armed robber (Bobby Cummines, now going straight) or the prostitute (Amanda, a 33-year-old mum).

“You could go and write a book about heroes but I didn’t want to do that. Prostitution is one of the most dangerous ways of earning a living and all the arguments about it are very complicated. It’s not just a moral thing but it is a very risky business and it is getting worse.”

Any list invites controversy but Kate says: “It’s my list and I don’t make any apologies for it.”

Kate, who now presents from the safety of a BBC desk job with From Our Own Correspondent on Radio 4, says she searched for common personality traits in those who choose to live dangerously.

In the end she came up with just one: “a common thread of purposeful determination”.

Into Danger: Risking Your Life For Work is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20.

The professions insurers like to avoid

ACCORDING to UK insurers, for whom risk equals high probability of a pay-out, steeplejacks, divers and security officers are among the top professions to avoid. Here’s why...

Steeplejack/scaffolder

Apart from the obvious threat of a fall, steeplejacks run a grave risk of being struck by lightning.

Demolition/bomb disposal/mine clearance expert

If you didn’t have Fred Dibnah down as a hero think again. Demolition and explosives work is not for the faint-hearted.

Pilot

Jetting out of Tees Valley and Newcastle airports might appear glamorous and – in terms of the number of accidents – relatively safe, but insurers classify commercial pilots, especially those flying light aircraft, as an extremely high risk.

Diver

Apart from the obvious threat of drowning, divers are also prone to mental problems caused by working underwater for long periods of time and to possible surges or deficiencies in oxygen supply.

Oil or gas rigger

North Sea oil rig workers are judged to be at a high risk of work-related injury – but their premiums are much lower than colleagues working in the Persian Gulf or off the coast of Nigeria, partly because these offshore rigs are seen as prime terrorist targets.

Deep-sea fisherman/trawlerman

For those in peril on the sea, insurers have a heavy weighting. The sheer unpredictability of the weather and currents means it’s classified as
one of the highest-risk occupations.

Soldier/security guard

Private security guard insurance is calculated according to the country in which you’re operating – those in a war zone or in a country with a current Foreign Office travel warning are heavily penalised.

The steeplejack

DAVID Stone might reach the parts others don’t, but he likes to think his job has an even loftier purpose – keeping alive the traditional skills of the steeplejack.

As managing director of Darlington-based Stone Technical Services, he certainly has a head for heights. The highest point he’s ever worked at is 800ft, relining the inside of a power station chimney flue.

Yet despite the constant danger he and his staff face while working, he says it’s easy to forget how high you are.

“You just become conditioned to it, I’ve been working at heights since I was 16. You have the odd moment when you think ‘one slip and that’s it’, such as working in windy conditions when the chimney stacks are swaying two feet either way.

“I employ 19 staff and each has to check in with me at the end of the day so I can get a decent night’s sleep.”

His company is the lightning conductor engineer for St Paul’s Cathedral and other landmark jobs include Bishopsthorpe Palace in York, Fountains Abbey in Ripon and Lindisfarne Castle.

“It’s a fascinating job and a great lifestyle, an adventure. You get to go to some interesting places all over the world. I do think it’s a job you’re born into – my brother is a steeplejack and his son is also training, so it’s definitely in the blood. I wouldn’t have any other career.”

David Stone has been working at heights since he was 16 and says he has become conditioned to the dangers.

The diver

TONY Curtis made his first dive as a lad on his own off the beach near his Teesside home in an aqua lung bought by his fisherman dad.

Now a partner in Sub Aqua Diving Services in Middlesbrough, he’d never dream of going out on a job with less than four in a team.

“I don’t suppose I saw any danger, then – I was always diving off the boat to get my dad’s crab pots and all sorts. The first thing they told me when I joined a diving club was to stop diving until I learned properly.”

Over the past 30 years he’s covered pretty much every inch of the bottom of the Tees installing and maintaining equipment for the port and offshore industries. Much of the firm’s work now is in the renewable energy sector.

“A diving job should never be dangerous if it’s carried out correctly,” says Tony. “Health and safety comes into it, but there’s a lot of experience as well – if you can’t see the danger to start with, health and safety won’t help.”

Divers form a close knit community, he says.

“If you’re going to put a man in the water, you want to know his mates are going to come to help if he gets into trouble. You tend to find that teams stick together. To break into one as a new diver is very difficult. You have got to be persistent and it might take years.”

Despite the risks and the skills set they need to take with them underwater – often doubling as a fitter, a rigger and a welder – divers are undervalued, he says.

“You can often go out on a job and find the diver is the worst paid.”

The bodyguard

“MY friends joke I’m James Bond away from home and Mrs Doubtfire when I’m back, says Paul Hutchinson – the closest Tees Valley has to 007”.

As a professional bodyguard, Paul has carried out close protection work on behalf of the prime minister of Qatar for the past 10 years and while he’s cautious about giving too much away, he admits: “We’ve been in a few scrapes.

“There’s a saying in the industry that we are all cowards, because we are organised in running away – although we don’t forget the client!”

Not a natural thrill-seeker, Paul, who alternates his jet-setting, highly-paid lifestyle as the PM’s bodyguard with teaching close protection at Darlington College, was a former firearms dealer and training provider before joining Cleveland Police where he worked with the residential security team, ensuring the safety of, among others on his home patch, Peter Mandelson.

“In general, civilian close protection is what we call ‘red carpet’ work. It used to be made up of a few police, a few ex-military and the rest civilians, but with the war on terror a lot more military are coming into the industry now.”

Although the dangerous element of the job is reflected in the pay – he doubled his £35,000 police wage overnight to work in civvie street – Paul says most of his time is spent on reccies and risk assessment.

“Close protection is all about preventing things from happening and if it does happen you do everything in order to get the client out. It’s not about testosterone or who has the biggest chest or the biggest gun. There’s a huge amount of planning – it’s all about taking control of eventualities.”

Outside of work, the most dangerous activity he engages in is running.

“You can’t be on high alert all your life – you’d be dead by 22. When it comes to weekends that’s my time with the children. I do all the things other dads do.”

The three-week Edexcel intensive course in close protection operations at Darlington College leads to the Security Investigations Authority badge – the accreditation for anyone working in the security industry.

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