14 September 2019

A hero firefighter who dealt with the carnage of the Westminster terror attacks has been left homeless after struggling to survive on Universal Credit .

For nine years Mark Robinson served as a specialist firefighter for the London Fire Brigade, responding to only the most gruesome and devastating incidents.

While cleaning body parts off the undersides of trains and sweeping up people killed in traffic accidents was a weekly occurrence for the 37-year-old, it was only during a call out to Westminster Bridge on March 22, 2017, that something within him snapped.

After Khalid Masood drove through crowds on the London landmark, injuring 50, Mr Robinson was required to remove the body of one of the four people who had tragically lost their lives.

"One woman had jumped out of the way of the guy and had gone under a bus," he explained.

"We were directed to recover the body.

"While we were always crawling around dead bodies, this time people were taking photos of us while we did it."

He was worn down by the gore and what felt like the ogling, intrusive reactions of the public.

On another occasion Mr Robinson was "scraping a girl's remains off the train tracks when someone commented on her boob job".

The Westminster terror attack began a long spiral into mental illness for the hero firefighter.

After walking off his shift at Christmas two years ago during a freezing session washing a fire engine, Mr Robinson found himself facing disciplinaries and fighting the LFB for sick pay.

He fell further into a mire of depression and PTSD, at one point checking into hospital showing suicidal tendencies. 

Two years on he has been officially struck off and bumped off the Brigade's payroll entirely.

For months Mark had been relying on a meagre £782 a month in Universal Credit to pay his rent and a relative mountain of debt.

Now he has had to leave his flat and move his possessions into his car.

"I feel pretty awful," he said. "I never expected to end up in this situation. My general health is declining very rapidly.

"I find it very hard to see how I move forward or back to where I was, in terms of physical wellbeing and mental health.

"It is difficult to see how I rebuild."

Following a short career as a runner on shows including Richard and Judy, where he "mostly stirred Judy's Ovaltine", the King's College graduate became the first LFB recruit to join a fire rescue unit (FRU).

Where previously fire fighters needed five or six years experience before they could apply for the better paid role and extra responsibilities that came with it, the Brigade now fast-tracks recruits to the front line.

From his first days on the job based at the Euston station Mr Robinson was dealing with truly horrific incidents.

"I remember getting underneath a train on the London Underground to rescue this person," he said.

"When I got down there I realised the femoral artery was severed and his head was hanging off.

"I was sitting under there for a long time while hundreds of people were running around the platform. That one stuck with me."

As the years went by and the fatalities mounted - a biker killed during a police chase, a drowned child - the work began to takes its toll.

Mr Robinson said: "There was this mounting feeling. It was constantly building.

"Then a partner I was with at the time was assaulted by a taxi driver and it really affected me.

"I began to have flashbacks. That's when I requested to leave the FRU."

The Brigade did not let Mr Robinson transfer to a more typical unit, he claims because they didn't want to lose the money that had been invested in his training.

He battled on, feeling bleaker and more isolated with each fatality until he was tipped over the edge by a freezing cold fire truck wash after a hard night's work. 

Mr Robinson received a disciplinary for walking off the job, despite finding someone to cover his shift.

He wouldn't return to the Brigade for six months and instead focused on his mental health in Bournemouth.

Even this proved difficult.

In order to receive sick pay he had to check in with his station manager during meetings that often conflicted with personal appointment he had with his psychologists.

Despite two doctors diagnosing him with PTSD and depression, the official reason recorded for his absence was 'stress'.

"He (the station manager) didn't even know what PTSD stood for," Mr Robinson said.

"It was like if you worked in McDonald's and your supervisor gave you counselling sessions.

"Worse still, they kept forcing me to go to sessions above my fire station. I didn't want to be in that environment. Just seeing a fire engine gave me a strong reaction.

"My doctors made my medical information available to the Brigade, so my attendance seemed unnecessary. I could have done it over the phone.

"I wasn't eating. I wasn't washing or opening mail."

When his full sick pay was cut six months earlier than he expected, Mr Robinson began drinking heavily to deal with the stress of mounting money problems.

Despite doctors noting that he was unfit for duty, Mr Robinson felt like he was constantly battling the Brigade to claim his due s.

Amidst traumatic flashbacks and daily nightmares, he returned to work in the FRU unit in Wembley on the advice of his union, which suggested he would be in line for a payout if he stayed a little longer.

But, under pressure to testify in the Westminster Terror Attacks enquiry, Mr Robinson realised he couldn't make the distance.

He quit for good in April this year and was immediately sent a letter from the Brigade asking for £2,000 in sickpay.

In the months since Mr Robinson has tumbled down the economic scale, trading his well paid job for Universal Credit.

While the benefit doesn't even cover his monthly council tax and rent bill, by officially leaving his flat he has been judged to have become 'intentionally homeless' by the DWP and his housing support pulled.

The pressure of missing rent and feeling like he was forcing his police officer landlady to take extra shifts to cover both their bills led Mr Robinson to leave the flat.

Now he is spending his time on friends' sofas and living in his car as he desperately tries to work out what to do next.

"I tried to find work but it's hard because I have a very particular set of skills," Mr Robinson said.

"I applied for minimum wage jobs but I often don't sleep for three days in a row. It is hard finding the employer who would let me have the sick time off.

"I sold all my surf boards. I sold my phone to get a cheaper one. I sold my TV, my furniture. Pretty much everything."

Although Mr Robinson is reticent to criticise the Brigade - which he says he still loves - he is critical of the mental health services it offers.

"There's no provision for mental health," he said.

"If you're ill and not living outside London then they won't communicate with your doctor.

"I know people that have come from Norfolk to London with a bad leg to explain why their leg is bad. It's symptomatic. You feel like a victim.

"I didn't feel there was anyone in charge of my case.

"I lived in Bournemouth but they would schedule my appointments for 9am in London. I don't know if it was a lack of care or attention."

Mr Robinson feels that there are problems with the Brigade that go beyond his case.

"The majority of firefighters are the kindest, most selfless people I have ever met," he said.

"I was an adult that felt like a newborn in their presence.

"Our problem occurs in the void between operational firefighters, associated officers and the management, whether HR, senior or station managers who have little influence either at station level or at HQ.

"There's a culture of protecting your rank by doing just enough to show you are performing your expected role while not incriminating yourself.

"Maintaining email trails is more important than finding resolutions."

A London Fire Brigade spokesperson said: “We do not discuss specifics relating to current or former members of staff.”

A Department of Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “Any claimant experiencing homelessness or living with a mental health condition should contact their jobcentre as our staff can refer them for additional housing support and our Mental Health Champions in every jobcentre can offer specialist support.

“We are committed to ensuring that anyone with mental health conditions gets the support they need, which is why the Government is increasing funding for mental health by at least £2.3bn a year in real terms by 2023/24.”

Source: Mirror