On life and Optems

Back in the day, when my Dad was a Divisional Inspector with the RNLI, things were a little simpler on the technology front. He had a notebook. He had a pen. And that was pretty much it. No mobile phone. No laptop. No internet. If you wanted to get in touch with my Dad, you either had to call him at home or put something in the post.

Fast forward a couple of decades. You’re sitting at your desk at work and want to read up on your organisation’s policy on something or other. So you open your web browser, surf over to your intranet and a couple of clicks later have the relevant policy on the screen in front of you. Now, this wasn’t an option for my Dad. And so we had Optems.

Operations Temporary Memoranda (Optems) were the RNLI’s intranet. They took the form of a series of enormous files, the contents of which covered the operational policies, rules and procedures governing the different aspects of my Dad’s (and the other inspectors’) work. They sat in a long line on the shelf in our living room. And – in our house, at least – they were my domain.

Each individual Optem was a few pages long and had its own unique reference number. When operational procedures changed, or when clarification was required, a new Optem was issued, either to replace an old one or to join those that were already in the file. So when a sheaf of Optems arrived in the post, it was the task of my younger self to add them carefully to the relevant file and to remove – if necessary – the ones that they were to replace.

As a ten year old, I didn’t get much post. So when the little brown envelope with my Dad’s name and address typed neatly on the front arrived, it was a source of great excitement. The size and shape were unmistakeable. Just large enough for a folded sheet of A4 and just thick enough to be two or three pages. And so I’d open the envelope and race to the files on the shelf.

To be honest, I think I may have been the only one in our house who ever looked at the Optems. My Dad possibly knew of their existence, but I don’t recall him actually referring to them at any point. His theory was that, if something was that important, someone would ring him up to tell him. But I’d pore over the things for hours, satisfying my – admittedly rather nerdy – desire for facts and figures through their densely-typed pages.

Reading the Optems was also, perhaps, on reflection a way for me to get closer to my Dad and to his work. He was out on the coast for much of the time, so the Optems were my chance to learn more about what his job involved and what he was likely to be doing. And from their dry words, my mind would create vivid stories of the lifeboats, their crews and the lives that they saved. No technology required.

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