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Ben Middleton | BTEC Public Services

When Ben Middleton signed up for a public services programme at Loughborough College, he had a burning ambition to become a firefighter.

But after an undiagnosed hearing problem was discovered and he was unable to qualify, his tutors kept him motivated and set him on a course to become an expert in disaster management and emergency planning.

I discovered I had a hearing problem. That knocked me. I was gutted because it also affected my ability to get into other services. But one of my tutors gave me the best advice ever: ‘Rather than being a firefighter holding the hose, why don’t you step back and tell the firefighter where to point it.'

Now, armed with a degree in the subject, Ben has been tackling the devastating impact of bush fires and large-scale traffic incidents as an emergency coordinator with Manningham City Council on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia.

Ben, 32, who is originally from Beaumont Leys, said: “I came to College wanting to be a firefighter, but then I looked into the Army after spending some time with them as part of the course. I came out of that wanting to work in bomb disposal.

“I was ready to sign up. I went to an Army Careers Office and as part of the sign-up process they need you to do a medical. It was there that I discovered I had a hearing problem. That knocked me. I was gutted because it also affected my ability to get into other services.

“But one of my tutors gave me the best advice ever: ‘Rather than being a firefighter holding the hose, why don’t you step back and tell the firefighter where to point it’. That’s when I started looking seriously into higher education through completing a degree at Coventry University in  Disaster Management and Emergency Planning.”

Helping people in an emergency is in Ben’s DNA.

At the age of 15, he won two national bravery awards, a Royal Humane Society Award and met former Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street after he used skills he picked up from TV’s Casualty and quick-thinking to save his friend’s life after they fell from a roof.

“That was what really made me want to work in public services. I wanted to help people and make a difference,” he said.

After graduating College with distinctions across his BTEC Level 3 Public Services qualification, he enrolled at Coventry University to embark on a BSc in Disaster Management & Emergency Planning. The three distinctions helped him to achieve a scholarship to complete the course.

Whilst at University, Ben took a year out to gain some invaluable work experience at Lambeth Council in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics.

“The college course really prepared me well,” Ben said. “The course was really unique as it touches on all the things that make a good leader such as understanding the dynamics of teams, qualities of a leader, discipline, the need to work together as a unit to achieve a common goal.”

Ben also volunteered with British Red Cross during his degree where he helped people displaced by house fires. Ben emphasised the importance of volunteering during education, saying “volunteering in a relatable subject to what you are studying helps your career progression hugely, by applying the theory learnt and then providing relatable examples to interview questions in the future”.

During his studies at Coventry, he raised over £1,800 to embark on a trip to Tanzania to help communities living on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro and supported a tree planting campaign to provide shelter and water for members of the Maasai tribe and their livestock.

After graduating from Coventry, Ben then became an Emergency Planner at Terminal 3, Heathrow Airport where he led a team of 40 volunteers to provide initial trauma support to staff and passengers impacted by airport emergencies, but also supporting British nationals and their families impacted by a disaster abroad who would travel through Heathrow.

During his time at Heathrow, Ben was seconded to an international Disaster Management Organisation where he worked as part of the relief effort in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster. His role as Personal Effects Specialist included the often harrowing role of reuniting Grenfell residents with the remnants of their destroyed homes, including photos of loved ones who died in the inferno.

“That was an emotional role at times,” said Ben. “I was physically going to the warehouse where the items had been stored. I would work as a large team to clean and disinfect them and deliver the items to the families who had lost loved ones.

“I’d sit with them, talk and show them the items recovered from their homes. It was a very emotional time for those families but we were all trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

He also volunteered as a Special Constable in the Metropolitan Police Service before moving to Australia in 2018 where he now lives and works.

Ben said: “I had a quarter life crisis of my own at the age of 28 years old, which made me want to try something different in another part of the world, so moved from London to Australia and became a backpacker, living out of a Jeep with a tent kit on the top and worked on farms for about six months.”

Ben then chose to explore job opportunities in the emergency management field and following months of applying for jobs, he secured sponsorship to work in some of the world’s most bushfire prone areas in south-east Australia.

As well as writing emergency plans, testing them through simulation and training staff to respond and testing for Manningham City Council, Ben was called into the multi-agency response to deal with the “Australian Black Summer Bushfires” which engulfed large parts of Australia in 2019-20.

“I was one of just over 20 council emergency management co-ordinators from all over the state of Victoria who came together to support affected council areas,” he said. “ I worked directly with the Director given the role of Bushfire Recovery, advising him of recovery principles and strategies, as well as initiating the development of Bushfire Impact Assessment Team.

“As a team we began building the recovery plan and a new recovery structure for council. The aims of the structure would be to enable the local authority to begin good quality and early engagement with the community to understand their situations and provide the resources and support to the community to adapt to a new post bushfire normal.”

“All those skills I learned at Loughborough College, like the communication skills, teamwork and leadership played a huge role in the success of that operation, they are the fundamentals of dealing with any crisis whether in work or my personal life.”

Ben said that he would like to work internationally in future, perhaps with the United Nations or Red Cross, and the course at Loughborough gave him the skills and confidence to pursue a career that has already taken him around the world.

“The course was fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The camaraderie was so strong amongst my fellow Loughborough students that I’m still in touch with my old classmates to this day,” Ben said.

“The tutors are outstanding, they really helped shape the early parts of my career in emergency management. I know a lot of people have gone into police, armed forces, it’s such a satisfying and rewarding space to be. In the future the world will need more people in emergency management roles to combat our changing world as we deal with the consequences of our changing climate.”

“I’d definitely recommend the course and I’d also say grab every opportunity – such as volunteering with disaster recovery teams, working with bereavement care, and learn how you can support during those crises. The power of volunteering really helps you gain skills with also actively supporting others, these skills can help in all walks of life.”

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