On duty: A story from the past

You’ll recall from previous blog posts that my Dad worked for the RNLI for nearly twenty years. Much of that time was spent out on the east coast of England, first as Deputy Divisional Inspector and then as the Divisional Inspector. But in between these roles, he spent a few years at the Institution’s headquarters in Poole, Dorset. His title was Staff Officer (General Duties), or SO(GD).

We joked that this meant that he was responsible for making the tea, though in reality I suspect that his role went a little beyond that. He had the tiniest office that I have ever seen, just down the corridor from the operations room on the top floor of the RNLI’s stumpy-looking office building. Which was probably not a particular problem, as he never seemed to actually spend any time in it.

There was, however, one occasion when Dad had to be in the office. And that was when he was ‘on duty’. Basically, the rule was that there always had to be a senior person available in the operations room – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. During the working day, this clearly wasn’t a problem. But at night and over the weekend, someone had to stick around to be on the end of the phone.

As you’ve probably guessed, this was in the days before mobile phones and swanky tablets were the norm. So being on the end of the phone meant physically being in the building. This may well still be the case, of course, but I suspect that technology now offers a broader range of options to those who need to stay in touch.

Anyway, this responsibility was shared between about twelve of the senior staff, who took it in turns to spend evenings, nights and weekends on site, in case anything happened around the coast that required an immediate response. They even had a little hotel-style bedroom at the end of the corridor, which always looked really out of place in an office building.

Dad claimed that his ‘duties’ were a pain, but I think he liked having the run of the building and having┬áthe operations room – complete with its complex charts and whiteboards – to himself. And I’m pretty sure that he enjoyed having a break from me and my three sisters. I would say that he used the time to catch up on paperwork, but I think that anyone who knew my Dad would recognise that this is highly unlikely.

For someone who had spent most of his life either at sea with the merchant navy or travelling around the coast for the RNLI, I think that being in a houseful of screaming children always came as a bit of a shock to him. It was, I recognise now, in the operations room of the RNLI HQ, as on the bridge of a merchant ship or at the wheel of a lifeboat, that he was really at home.

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